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Is The Psychological Safety at Work Concept Being Misused?

Is The Psychological Safety at Work Concept Being Misused?


Astrid Tran 28 Feb 2024 6 min read

A culture of psychological safety at work is what many firms are promoting in today’s business landscape. It is known as a “good vibes only” workplace, where there is safety in the discomfort of diverse ideas and open dialogue. However, when the concept of psychological safety is not always appropriately used, it can be even more harmful.

With that in mind, this article sheds light on the nuances of implementing a genuine culture of psychological safety at work and the potential pitfalls organizations may encounter when misinterpreting or misapplying this concept.

Who introduced the concept of Psychological Safety?Amy Edmondson
What are the 4 types of psychological safety?Including, learning, contributing, and challenging
Psychological safety synonymTrust
An Overview of The Psychological Safety at Work
Image: timetrakgo

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What is Psychological Safety at Work?

What exactly is psychological safety in the workplace? It’s a concept that’s employed a lot but is often misinterpreted. In working psychological safety, employees are encouraged to express their ideas, opinions, and concerns, speak up with questions, admit mistakes without being criticized, and avoid negative consequences. It is secure to share feedback with colleagues, including negative upward feedback to supervisors and leaders about where improvements or changes are needed.

4 stages of psychological safety
Image: nectarhr

Why is Psychological Safety at Work Important?

The Importance of psychological safety at work is undeniable and extends far beyond the soft stuff. A survey from McKinsey revealed that an overwhelming 89 percent of employee respondents agreed that psychological safety in the workplace is a crucial factor.

Increase a sense of belongingness

One of the key benefits of fostering psychological safety is the increased sense of belongingness among employees. When individuals feel psychologically safe, they are more likely to express their authentic selves, share ideas, and actively participate in the workplace community. This sense of belonging enhances collaboration and cohesion within teams, ultimately contributing to a positive and inclusive work environment.

Boost innovation and team performance

Besides, psychological safety is a catalyst for innovation and improved team performance. In an environment where employees feel safe to take risks, share creative ideas, and voice dissenting opinions without fear of reprisal, innovation flourishes. Teams that embrace psychological safety are more likely to explore new approaches, problem-solve effectively, and adapt to changing circumstances, leading to increased overall performance and competitiveness.

Enhance overall well-being

Beyond professional outcomes, psychological safety significantly contributes to the overall well-being of employees. When individuals feel secure in expressing their thoughts and emotions at work, stress levels decrease, and job satisfaction increases. This positive impact on well-being extends to both mental and physical health, creating a work environment that promotes a healthy work-life balance and fosters long-term employee engagement

Raise healthy conflicts

While conflicts can be uncomfortable, it’s essential to understand that a conflict-free environment is not synonymous with a productive or innovative one. In fact, healthy conflicts that arise from diverse opinions and unproductive, destructive conflicts driven by personal animosities benefit the team. They provide opportunities to surface differing perspectives, challenge existing ideas, and ultimately arrive at better solutions.

Misconceptions about Psychological Safety at Work

There are several common misconceptions about psychological safety in the workplace. These misunderstandings can lead to misapplications and hinder the development of a truly supportive and inclusive environment.

Image: knowledge.wharton.upenn

Excuses for accountability

Some may misinterpret psychological safety as a reason to avoid holding individuals accountable for their actions or performance. The misconception is that providing constructive feedback might compromise the feeling of safety. In the long term, it contributes to a sense of unfairness among high-performing individuals. When exemplary efforts go unrecognized or when underperformers face no consequences, it may lead to a demoralized workforce, diminishing the motivation of those who consistently strive for excellence

Being nice all the time

Promoting a psychologically safe environment isn’t about being “nice” all the time.  “Unfortunately, at work, nice is often synonymous with not being candid.” This highlights a common pitfall where the desire to maintain a pleasant atmosphere may inadvertently lead to avoiding necessary, honest conversations. This doesn’t mean promoting a confrontational atmosphere but rather fostering a culture where candor is seen as an asset, a pathway to improvement, and an essential element of a thriving workplace.

Unearned autonomy

The distortion of psychological safety also includes misunderstood self-directed empowerment or autonomy. Some claim for a new level of autonomy. That isn’t true. Though psychological safety might somehow equal trust, that doesn’t mean you can be managed loosely or not at all, do things your way without discussion or approval. In some specific industries, particularly those with stringent regulations or safety protocols, inappropriate and incompetent actions can lead to serious consequences.

Zero consequence for interpersonal harm

Some misunderstand that it’s ok to say whatever I want without fear of consequences. Not all languages are allowed to speak in the workplace such as harmful, bigoted, or exclusionary language. Some might take it as an excuse to say whatever comes to mind, regardless of its negative impact on others. Harmful language not only damages professional relationships but also erodes the sense of safety and inclusivity that psychological safety aims to foster.

How to Create Psychological Safety at Work

How to improve psychological safety in the workplace? It is a long game to build a healthy work environment with psychological safety. Here are some psychological safety at work examples to

psychological safety at work examples

Break the “Golden Rule”

“Treat others as you’d like to be treated” – This phrase is famous yet might not totally true in terms of psychological safety in the workplace. It is time to consider a new approach “Treat others as they’d like to be treated”. If you know what others want and how they prefer to be treated, you can personalize your approach to acknowledge and celebrate the diversity of perspectives, working styles, and communication preferences within a team

Promote Transparency

The key to successful psychological safety is transparency and open communication about organizational decisions, goals, and challenges. Transparency builds trust and helps employees feel more connected to the broader vision of the company. When individuals understand the reasons behind decisions, they are more likely to feel secure and confident in their roles. This transparency extends to leadership actions, fostering a culture of openness and honesty.

Replace Blame with Curiosity

Instead of assigning fault when something goes wrong, encourage a mindset of curiosity. Ask questions to understand the root causes of issues and explore solutions collaboratively. This approach not only avoids a culture of fear but also promotes a learning environment where mistakes are viewed as opportunities for improvement rather than occasions for punishment.

Conduct Pulse Survey

These short, frequent surveys allow employees to provide anonymous feedback on their experiences, concerns, and suggestions. Analyzing the survey results can help identify areas for improvement and guide organizational efforts to continuously enhance the work environment. It also demonstrates a commitment to listening to employees’ voices and taking proactive steps to address their needs

Key Takeaways

💡If you want to promote psychological safety at work, implementing a survey is the first step to understanding what your employee really needs. An anonymous survey from AhaSlides can help collect valuable insights from employees quickly and engagingly.


What is a psychologically safe workplace?

A psychologically safe workplace creates an engaging and supportive culture where employees
feel empowered to contribute their ideas, express their concerns, and collaborate without fear of reprisal. It promotes trust, creativity, and collaboration among team members.

What are the 4 factors of psychological safety?

The four key elements of psychological safety include inclusion, learner, contributor, and challenger safety. They refer to the process of building an environment where individuals feel included, and ready to learn, contribute, and challenge the status quo without interpersonal fear.

Ref: HBR | Forbes | Jostle