Management teams with high psychological safety perform better than teams where psychological safety is low, according to new research by VU Amsterdam external PhD student Elmira Nijhuis.
While it has long been known that psychological safety and good work performance go hand in hand, this insight comes mainly from quantitative research. Nijhuis, by contrast, conducted qualitative research, interviewing at length four administrative and management teams in the healthcare sector. “The difficulty in finding teams willing to take part in the research meant that I spent three years on that aspect alone. The low number of teams inevitably means that follow-up research will be needed, but even so it is possible to draw the tentative conclusion from my research that psychological safety is important for team performance.”
The term ‘psychological safety’ was coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, the leading expert in the field. Edmondson defines psychological safety as the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up. It improves organisational outcomes in terms of decision-making and innovations, among other things.
According to the research respondents, the quality of decision-making deteriorates when people are afraid to speak out. “The decision-making then fails to incorporate the whole spectrum of input, and furthermore it is impossible to have any sort of open discussion about that”, says Nijhuis. “In addition, a lack of psychological safety makes people feel less loyal to the team. Within administrative and management teams, this leads to members focusing more on the goals of their own department rather than on collaboration across the organisation. Both issues have a markedly adverse impact on an organisation’s results.”
Nijhuis came across something striking in one of the teams in her research with high psychological safety – a board of a medical partnership. “One of the board members, a man of some stature, said to me: I feel secure. I wasn’t expecting that, and it was nice to hear. He also mentioned that board members can say anything to each other and recognise and leverage each other’s strengths. These are all elements of psychological safety.”
Depression and anger
Psychological safety is not only important for team performance, but also has personal implications for team members. Where there is a lack of security, those implications can be deeply significant, says Nijhuis. “People experience gloom, depression, anger and a lack of meaning. All of which seems quite logical, but as far as I am aware this has never been properly researched from a scientific perspective.”
The opposite is also true: people who can speak out are happier and much more engaged. “You could also argue – even though this was not part of my research – that places where people feel safe have lower absenteeism rates. That would be an additional reason to foster it, although that would need further research.”
Given the uncertainties that often exist, Nijhuis is keen to stress that her research is not about harassment or transgressive behaviour. “Although psychological safety is indeed one of the factors in that regard, harassment or transgressive behaviour is much broader. Psychopathy also plays an important role, for example.”
The right way
So how can we ensure greater psychological safety in the workplace? “Get to know each other, invest time in each other. Ask your colleagues how they are doing, find out who is good at what. Giving time and attention boosts social safety. It may be a truism, but people nowadays are so busy they just don’t get around to it.”
According to Nijhuis, the role of the manager is also very important. “That was less apparent in my research, but is evident in the literature. You can focus on this as an organisation, for example through training. But also by paying attention to personality traits associated with psychological safety, such as reliability, empathy and emotional stability, when hiring new executives and managers. Sociability is also a facilitating factor. I found that quite surprising, because I work a lot with managers and boards and I have met many outstanding professionals, but I don’t immediately think of sociability in that context.”
Elmira Nijhuis defended her doctoral thesis on 12 January.