Leadership & Culture, Performance | May 13, 2021
What psychological safety is, what it is not, its origins, and clarifying misconceptions.

A Leaders Performance Institute article brought to you by our Main Partners

The Leaders Performance Institute looks to answer some of the key questions around psychological safety, from its origins and how it became such a hot topic in high performance to its characteristics and how you can identify it within your organisations.

By John Portch

What is psychological safety?

The term ‘psychological safety’ entered the business lexicon in 1999 when psychologist Amy Edmondson, then of Harvard Business School, defined it as: ‘a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.’ Her original paper has been cited more than 8,000 times in academic research and, in 2012, psychological safety was identified by Google’s Project Aristotle as the most important aspect of what makes an effective team at Google. “This is a little bit of a clinical-sounding term but this is the best one we have to describe this sense of ability to take interpersonal risks in a work setting,” says Abeer Dubey, who led Project Aristotle and serves as Google’s Director of People Analytics.

“In a sporting context, that might be taking a risk on a field of play or during training,” says Dr David Fletcher, the Senior Lecturer in Performance Psychology and Management at Loughborough University. “It’s a calculated risk; it’s not putting yourself under risk of physical harm, it’s more around tactical or technical risks around trying something different to see if it comes off without the risk of being penalised or called out for that failure.”

If there are no risks being taken because the athlete does not feel safe then they are unlikely to spark meaningful development. “What’s going to happen is that the athlete is going to avoid taking any risks,” says Dr Mustafa Sarkar, the Associate Professor of Sport and Performance Psychology at Nottingham Trent University. “When we take risks we’re more creative, more innovative.”

Hilary Knight, Olympic ice hockey gold medallist with Team USA, says: “It’s interesting because, as players, we don’t necessarily think of it as ‘psychological safety’, so to speak. It’s: ‘how do we problem-solve together and work towards winning that championship?’ A lot of it is about our team dynamics. To me, it’s creating an environment conducive to team building, problem-solving and being able to create a deeper level of trust among individuals that comes together to work towards that common goal.”

How did psychological safety begin to appear in sporting contexts?

Given the amount of interpersonal risk-taking that goes on in sport, from athletes out on the field to coaches in a meeting, it’s not hard to see how the term has seeped into sports performance. “It’s emergence in sport has been in parallel with greater awareness around athletes’ wellbeing and welfare,” says Fletcher.

The exact point of origin is hard to identify but the direction of travel is clear. In 2015, as part of the UK Government’s Sporting Future strategy, Minister for Sport Tracey Crouch asked former Paralympic athlete Tanni Grey-Thompson to conduct an independent review into the duty of care sport has towards its participants. The report of the review’s findings was published in 2017. “That report looked at the winning-at-all-costs culture in sport,” says Sarkar. “Psychological safety has been talked about in relation to certain Olympic and professional sports; maybe there was an element of that.” Fletcher concurs: “There were some high-profile cases in elite sport around alleged abuse as well as that report. They coincided with more people becoming aware of psychological safety.”

There has been a concurrent development Down Under, with a specific emphasis on the socio-cultural dimension, as Dr Kate Hall, the AFL’s Head of Mental Health and Wellbeing, explains. “In Australia, it’s really common to discuss cultural safety” she says. “It’s a well used term for culturally safe workplaces that are inclusive and diverse. Then, more broadly, as a community, cultural safety means our sensitive practices towards people from diverse backgrounds. So psychological safety has entered our vernacular as a step further, meaning that everyone can be themselves regardless of their own background, their mental health issues, their personality quirks etc.”

Fletcher adds that it has been sports practitioners themselves who have ensured that crossover from the world of business. “Until recently, it wasn’t researched to a great extent by academics in sport, it was more practising coaches and practising psychologists who have found out more about the term from the business literature and applied it to sport. The research literature in sport is playing catch-up. There’s been a few papers published in sport but not many.”

What are the main features of psychologically safe environments?

At this juncture, Sarkar issues a caveat: “The danger of translating research that’s been done in business to sport is that elite sport is inherently unsafe. Things like selection or funding are not in people’s control and it automatically creates an unsafe environment. It might be a case of not creating psychological safety but managing traditionally what are unsafe environments.”

“Amy Edmondson’s thoughts about a variety of things can apply to elite sport. Firstly, creating an environment where people are able to ask questions rather than the environment being directive. The asking of questions is something that needs to be done throughout a team or an organisation, where coaches, support staff and senior leaders feel comfortable and have that mindset where we’re constantly asking questions rather than necessarily providing answers. What that does is create an environment where people can say: ‘if that senior person is asking us for some information, they don’t necessarily have all the answers themselves’, and it creates that mindset where it’s OK to express your viewpoint.”

“I would say that psychological safety is very context-specific,” he adds. “If we talk about training and competition, is there psychological safety in training versus psychological safety within competition? I don’t necessarily think there is a single ambition. I think you’re always looking to develop psychological safety with the ultimate ambition of sustained success and wellbeing.”

Are there other features of psychological safety?

Edmondson has a clear definition. As Sarkar says, “She differentiates between psychological safety and the notion of trust. She also differentiates between psychological safety and just being nice. That’s not what psychological safety is about. It’s not about lowering standards or just being nice and pleasant.”

The theme is taken up by Stuart Worden, the Principal of the BRIT School, a renowned performing arts and technology school in south-east London. “I’ll always believe that we should start with kindness and encourage adventure,” he says, “because I think even poverty comes second to bullying as the absolute obstacle to young people being able to be a success and be the person they want to be. Bullying can take many forms; it can take the form of physical bullying, verbal bullying, it can take the form of structural bullying e.g. a school that is set up not to help a child. When bullying is reduced and when it’s removed as an obstacle in the environment in which you exist, everything becomes more possible.

“Kindness, by the way, doesn’t mean ‘soft’. It is very kind to turn around to a dancer and say ‘I’m afraid to say your ballet isn’t good enough.’ That’s kind because it allows that dancer to say ‘cool, great, I need to work on that’. Kindness isn’t just about hugging and forgiveness, it’s also about truth, but it’s the way that it’s done with heart rather than sometimes aggression. So kindness, I do believe in it, we have seen it during lockdown, we’ve seen extraordinary things. Kindness becomes confusing when it’s seen as the soft option and it isn’t. It’s actually very difficult.”

Can you know when you’ve attained psychological safety?

It is never one-size-fits-all. “One simple reason is that within teams people come and go all the time,” says Fletcher. “You have new signings and you have people retire, so you’re constantly creating a culture and a climate of which one aspect of that will be psychological safety but also having that balance right between challenge and support. It’s a constant evolution and something that you’re chasing.

“In this area your best hope is to try and ride the wave and stay on the wave as long as you can. It’s bit like a journey. The best managers are able to do that; and it’s not just the players that come and go, it’s the climate, it’s the fixture list, your opposition, your injuries. There’s so many moving parts to all of this.

“The great coaches can sense when to apply a bit more challenge and when to make the team feel a bit more uncomfortable and they can also sense times when people are feeling more threatened to the point where it feels unproductive and you need to provide more reassurance around risk-taking and you won’t be called out when you make mistakes.”

This article first appeared in the latest Performance Special Report, Psychological Safety: The origins, reality and shelf life of an evolving high performance concept – featuring the athlete, coach and academic perspectives. Download now.

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