Wikipedia, Psychological Safety, & the Tragedy of Open Source
I have spent quite some some time working to contribute to the Wikipedia page on psychological safety, particularly in respect to the section on History of the subject. Dr Amy Edmondson was kind enough to help structure and edit it. Unfortunately, it recently became the victim of overzealous Wikipedia editors who have stripped much of the valuable content out. I retained a backup and have pasted it below. You may, if you wish, contribute to the live Wikipedia page itself, and maybe collectively we can bring it back to its former glory!
The below is simply a backup, stored because I don’t like the idea of knowledge being lost. I’m not suggesting that the Wikipedia page should be recreated as below 🙂
If you have any questions about this, would like to help but aren’t sure how, or have any other comment, please get in touch.
Wikipedia Psychological Safety
Psychological safety is being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career (Kahn 1990, p. 708). It can be defined as a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. In psychologically safe teams, team members feel accepted and respected. It is also the most studied enabling condition in group dynamics and team learning research.
Timothy R. Clark has contributed to the concept of psychological safety with the 4 Stages of Psychological Safety framework. He defines psychological safety as “a condition in which human beings feel (1) included, (2) safe to learn, (3) safe to contribute, and (4) safe to challenge the status quo – all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way.” (Clark, 2020)
- 2History of Psychological Safety
- 3Psychological safety in a social unit
- 6Current research
Psychological safety is about removing fear from human interaction and replacing it with respect and permission. (Timothy R Clark, 2019) It has been an important discussion area in the field of psychology, behavioral management, leadership, teams, and healthcare. Results from a number of empirical studies conducted in various regions and countries show that psychological safety plays an important role in workplace effectiveness (Edmondson and Lei, 2014). It has been consistently playing an important role by facilitating ideas and activities to a shared enterprise. It also enables teams and organizations to learn and perform and in recent years, it has become a more significant organizational phenomenon due to the increased necessity of learning and innovation.
History of Psychological Safety
The term “psychological safety” is believed to have been first employed and explored by organisational researchers Schein and Bennis in the 1960s, defining it as a group phenomenon that reduces interpersonal risk: i.e. psychological safety reduces “a person’s anxiety about being basically accepted and worthwhile”; recognising the importance of psychological safety in relation to uncertainty and change.
Point 8 of W. E. Deming’s 14 Points For Management, written in 1982, of “Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company”  highlights a similar growing realisation, in contrast to previous Taylorist management approaches, that the creation of environments where it is interpersonally safe to raise concerns is of crucial importance to realising high quality business outcomes.
Explicit interest in psychological safety was renewed by Kahn in the 1990’s, through qualitative studies which showed that psychological safety enables people to “employ or express themselves physically, cognitively, and emotionally”. This was in parallel with emerging progressive management paradigms at the time such as safety culture and the Toyota Production System (TPS) that introduced a physical representation of psychological safety, the Andon Cord, which explicitly provides employees with the empowerment to raise issues or concerns.
Work by Edmondson in 1999 demonstrated that psychological safety facilitates “team learning behaviours and team performance” and was subsequently picked up by the Google Project Aristotle team who were studying the building blocks of high performance teams, led by Julia Rozovsky. The project uncovered four key factors (Dependability, Structure and Clarity, Meaning, and Impact) that are essential to team performance, but it was clear during the research that there remained one or more missing elements. The team discovered Edmondson’s 1999 research and applied the paper’s methodology to measure psychological safety. The results showed that “even the extremely smart, high-powered employees at Google needed a psychologically safe work environment to contribute the talents they had to offer”. From this point, psychological safety was widely recognised to be the most important contributing factor for high performing teams.
The macro-effect of psychological safety at scale was proposed by Garvin, Edmondson, and Gino’s 2008 proposition of “Learning Organizations”, a primary building block of which is psychological safety. Similarly, research in the 2019 and 2021 “State of DevOps” reports consistently shows psychological safety to be an essential and foundational factor in software delivery team performance, and notably to organisation-wide performance.
Psychological safety in a social unit
Psychological safety is a group-level phenomenon. Research on team effectiveness emphasises input-process-output (IPO) models, and some studies see psychological safety as an input that promotes team performance through team learning as a mediator (process).
A significant antecedent of psychological safety is trust (input) which plays an important role in knowledge sharing as well as a mediating (process) role partially (Zhang et al., 2010). A number of studies show that psychological safety is a mediator of relationships between antecedent (similar to ‘input variables’ in the input-process-output model) including organizational context, team characteristics and team leadership, and outcomes (similar to ‘output variables’ in IPO model) of innovation, performance, learning, and improvement in or by a team. Although psychological safety has a significant effect as a mediator in explaining team outcomes, it also plays a role as a moderator. Here, psychological safety as a mediator acts as an input in case of teamwork as well as process or emergent state. Due to the boundary condition, it may not help teams to learn when particular conditions such as absence of interdependence are supporting teamwork.
When team members are motivated at work and want to share an idea for improving performance, they frequently do not speak up because they fear that they will be harshly judged. When psychological safety is present, team members think less about the potential negative consequences of expressing a new or different idea than they would otherwise. As a result, they speak up more when they feel psychologically safe and are motivated to improve their team or company.
Psychological safety is often confused with other concepts such as trust and psychological mindfulness. The primary differences between psychological safety and trust are that psychological safety focuses on a belief about a group norm, but trust focuses on a belief that one person has about another. Also, psychological safety is defined by how group members think they are viewed by others in the group, but trust is defined by how one views another.
Mindfulness is also different from psychological safety in that mindfulness is about being aware of one’s surroundings but psychological safety is focused on being respected in a group. Moreover, the most studied result of psychological safety, team learning, is defined as a group adjusting to its surrounding through outwardly sharing observations about their environment. However, mindfulness is an individual becoming internally enlightened about his/her environment.
Psychological safety benefits organizations and teams in many different ways. The following are the most widely empirically supported consequences of a team being psychologically safe:
- Improves likelihood that an attempted process innovation will be successful
- Increases amount members learn from mistakes
- Boosts employee engagement
- Improves team innovation
Leaders as well as some aspects of the team can increase team members’ psychological safety. Two aspects of leadership have been shown to be particularly instrumental in creating a psychologically safe team. They are leaders using:
There are also two aspects of a team that help improve its psychological safety. They are:
- A clear team structure where members understand their role on the team
- Strong relationships between cohesive team members
It is possible to quantitatively measure psychological safety on a team by scoring agreement with certain statements, where higher agreement correlates strongly with increased psychological safety. These are adapted from Dr Amy Edmondson’s research, and the questions should be modified to to fit the context and language of the target audience.
- On this team, I understand what is expected of me.
- We value outcomes more than outputs or inputs, and nobody needs to “look busy”.
- If I make a mistake on this team, it is never held against me.
- When something goes wrong, we work as a team to find the systemic cause.
- All members of this team feel able to bring up problems and tough issues.
- Members of this team never reject others for being different and nobody is left out.
- It is safe for me to take a risk on this team.
- It is easy for me to ask other members of this team for help.
- Nobody on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
- Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilised.
These questions highlight practices and behaviours that create psychological safety, so, via something like the Hawthorn Effect, by measuring agreement with these statements, people are also encouraged to adopt psychologically safe behaviours.
Research Project Aristotle and the DORA State Of DevOps annual report show that psychological safety is the single most important factor for increased performance in teams, both from a Software Development and whole-organisation perspectives. The DevOps approach to modern software delivery requires engineers to possess psychological safety, as one of the key “Three Ways” of DevOps is “Feedback Loops”, which require that engineers can make, and admit, mistakes in order to learn from them. Without psychological safety, those mistakes would remain hidden, and unlearned from.
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