Why psychological safety is a team sport

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Thursday, 27 May, 2021 - 12:30
Industry news
National News

While individuals need to feel safe with the interactions they have with their leader when it comes to psychological safety, it is equally important – if not more so – for employees to feel safe within their team, with or without the leader present.

Much of the advice to date to improve psychological safety has focussed predominately on the leader and team interface, said Sandra Lam, managing director of FIFO Focus (FF), a psychology firm which supports organisations to handle the complexities of psychological health among remote workers.

“Advice such as avoid blaming and allowing your team to make mistakes, including your team in decision making, being open to feedback, are valid, however, the focus is very much building safety through the leader-team dynamic,” said Lam, an endorsed organisational psychologist with over two decades of industry experience in the public and private sectors in Australia and overseas.

“However, psychological safety is a team sport.”

It is at this point that the benefits of psychological safety of engagement, innovation and productivity come to the fore, said Lam, who was speaking ahead of an AIHS webinar on creating the perfect storm for psychological safety in the workplace, which will be held on Thursday 17 June 2021.

“The leaders’ role is therefore to support the development of a positive team climate.”

Additionally, there are individual and work design enablers that also need to be considered, developed and harnessed.

Lam said there are certain individual characteristics that increase the chances of experiencing psychological safety such as learning mindset and proactivity, as well as work design conditions that also create the foundations for psychological safety such as role clarity and autonomy.

In addressing challenges and solutions around psychological safety, Lam said it is important to clarify what it means, as there have been times where people have confused psychological safety with psychological health and safety, or psychosocial risks.

“Psychological safety is defined as feeling safe enough to speak up and participate in group discussions without fear of consequence,” she said.

“Essentially, individuals who feel psychologically safe feel included, feel able to make and learn from mistakes, can contribute and when required, challenge the status quo.”

According to research conducted in Australia in 2012, 56 per cent of the sample population felt that their workplace was psychologically safe while 22 per cent felt their workplace was somewhat psychologically safe while the final 22 per cent did not feel their workplace was psychologically safe.

Further research conducted in Australia in 2017 and 2019 found similar results though the interesting finding in these studies is that lower income-earning frontline employees felt less psychologically safe than their higher income-earning counterparts.

Although there has not been enough in-depth research to determine why, Lam said it does indicate that there are individual, team, leader and environmental factors that may play a role in the experience of psychological safety.

“It’s about understanding that there are many components that contribute to the experience of psychological safety: individual, team, leader, work design and systems and processes that enable safe behaviours,” said Lam.

“Although the leader plays a key role in modelling the right behaviours, they also must develop the skills with teams to also display these behaviours.”

Leaders, therefore, need to develop strong skills in developing social relationships in teams, and Lam explained that once the positive team climate has been developed, the leader then needs to start challenging the team past their comfort zone.

“Since psychological safety is a belief-based concept, training that is delivered needs to include moments that push individual towards introspection,” said Lam.

“Training that typically provides knowledge is insufficient to break belief patterns and mindsets.”

Psychological safety is important for OHS professionals as it plays a role in creating an environment where people feel safe to openly discuss error, report near misses, adverse events, injuries, and unsafe behaviours, said Lam.

“This then enables team and organisational learning and improvements to be made,” she said.

“OHS professionals, therefore, need to demonstrate consultative and supportive leadership rather than purely performing the policing and compliance role.

“Safety professionals who generates a sense that error is a shared learning opportunity and a collective responsibility aimed at risk mitigation and performance improvement, will enhance the experience of psychological safety which in turn, will strengthen the safety climate of the organisation,” said Lam.


Lam will be presenting an AIHS webinar on creating the perfect storm for psychological safety in the workplace, which will be held on Thursday 17 June 2021 from 10-11am. For more information call (03) 8336 1995, email or visit the event website.