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As society unlocks, and with Covid cases on the rise again, many of us justifiably fear for our physical safety at work.

But what about our emotional safety? How emotionally safe do you feel at work and in life?

Psychological (or Emotional) Safety at work has been the topic of much discussion in recent years since Professor Amy Edmondson’s TED Talk about her research into the topic and since the Google Aristotle Project declared it the number one factor in creating high performing teams.

Teams with high levels of psychological safety are proven to be more creative and innovative, take more risks, experiment with different ways of working, learn quickly when they fail and are better able to thrive in the fast-paced and constantly changing environment that is today’s modern workplace. What organisation doesn’t want that?

Yet relatively few (less than 20%) of organisations achieve psychological safety and numbers appear to be falling in the last 2-3 years.

Professor Edmondson defines psychological safety as:

A belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns and mistakes and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking

This, and other definitions of psychological safety, see it as a TEAM construct and I don’t disagree. But seeing it simply as something to be achieved by a team misses a crucial point:

You cannot have psychological safety within a Team (or an Organisation) unless the individuals and leaders within the Team have created psychological safety for themselves.

Let me explain….

Professor Edmondson did a lot of research into why Nurses and Junior Doctors in hospital teams led by a Consultant, didn’t speak up when they saw the Consultant make a mistake. Even when afterwards they admitted that they thought a mistake was happening.

The implication is that there is something in the behaviour of the Consultant that stops them speaking up. It also seems that the onus is on the Consultant, as the leader of the hospital team, to make sure they feel safe to do so.

If the Consultant has been angry or dismissive when challenged in the past then of course that may be a correct assumption. But what if the Consultant has a history of receiving challenge calmly, of being responsive to discussing different opinions and has tried to encourage that in her team?

Does that mean that the Nurse feels safe to speak up?  Maybe, but maybe not. What if, whilst the Nurse is watching the Consultant prescribe the wrong dosage, that inner voice in his head is saying:

 “no of course she’s right, she’s being doing this for years, she’s a Senior Consultant, you probably misunderstood, don’t say anything, you will make yourself look stupid…”

Is he likely to speak up then? Not at all – he doesn’t feel psychologically safe to speak.

That voice of doubt is driven by our inner belief system, sometimes called the Ego Mind. Our beliefs typically come from our childhood experiences, when we have persistently been exposed to situations where we might conclude we are unsafe, unloveable, not intelligent enough or not worthy of attention. These are some of the more common beliefs but there are literally hundreds and all of us have them. The problem is that we believe them to be true and we interpret the world through the lens of our belief system which only serves to reinforce the belief.

When the Nurse is challenged as to why he didn’t question the mistake it’s highly likely his inner voice will suggest to him that:

“you should have spoken up, you are so useless, someone could have died…”

thus reinforcing the belief that he is somehow inadequate or “not good enough”.

To feel personal psychological safety we have to work on identifying and changing these beliefs – because they aren’t true! And alongside that we have to develop our own authentic confident selves.

Is it worth the effort? Absolutely! We all want to live a life without the stress and unhappiness of that inner critical voice stopping us being the person we were meant to be. A life based on understanding who we really are and what we want and having the courage to pursue our goals and purpose without worrying what others think.

Personal psychological safety doesn’t stop bad things happening or difficult situations occurring at work or in any part of our lives. But it helps us deal with them in a way that fits with our values and isn’t driven from a place of fear.

Personal psychological safety doesn’t say “everything will work out perfectly” it says “I will be fine if it doesn’t”. And in a world where our emotional health is under so much pressure, at work and at home, that safety is priceless. And, of course, once we have personal psychological safety we can begin to create and be part of those high performing teams that Prof. Edmondson and Google talk about.


Kathy Coleman spent 30 + years in Change Delivery working for Capgemini Consulting, Deloitte, Ernst & Young and as an independent Programme Director. She delivered transformation programmes for organisations including the John Lewis Partnership, Scottish Power, Deutsche Asset Management, AXA Life, The RAC, Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds Banking Group. Fascinated by the cultural aspects of change, and passionate about empowering the people impacted, Kathy set up her own consultancy in 2012 providing services to teams and individuals undergoing change of any kind. She qualified as a Team and Leadership Coach in 2012 and since then has provided support to hundreds of people from CEO’s to individual team members. Kathy is also a qualified therapist which gives her a deep understanding of mindset and behaviour and how to change these. In her spare time Kathy can usually be found out on her bike exploring the beautiful Cotswold countryside where she lives.

For more information contact Kathy at [email protected]  or on +44 7803 207401

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