Psychological Safety in a team is measured as a shared belief, based on the commonly accepted assumption that all team members feel the same level of psychological safety in their teams. This assumption is false and can mask serious problems of psychological safety in certain teams.
Psychological safety—the belief that it is safe to take interpersonal risks within a group—is recognized as a key attribute of high-performance teams. Research has shown that when team members are afraid to share their views, ask for feedback, or take risks, the team will be less effective.
Psychological safety is conceptualized as a shared belief—that is, as a team-level attribute based on the assumption that all team members will share the same perception of the levels of psychological safety in the team.
A team of researchers at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) challenges this shared belief assumption. Different workplace experiences, different interactions or relationships with the team leader, and different lengths of time on the team can all lead to different perceptions of psychological safety.
Thus, treating psychological safety at the group level can mask major issues within a team. For example, take one team in which all team members agree that there is a moderate amount of psychological safety in their team. On the second team, half the team members perceive very high levels of psychological safety while the other half of the members consider the level of psychological safety in the team to be very low. On average, both teams would show a moderate level of psychological safety, despite the major issues that threaten the performance and effectiveness of the second team.
To explore the impact that different perceptions of psychological safety within teams might have on performance and effectiveness, the CCL research team chose to focus on senior leadership teams—teams that more than most face intensive pressure and demands. The researchers surveyed 287 CEOs and their direct reports to investigate whether different perceptions of psychological safety existed within senior leadership teams and how these differences might impact team effectiveness.
To measure psychological safety, the researchers used a standard 7-question survey (e.g., “Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues”). Respondents answered with a rating scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).
To measure team effectiveness, the researchers used the same 5-point rating scale for questions related to four metrics of effectiveness:
The data revealed that for 38% of the teams, a consensus on the team’s psychological safety existed, aligning with the shared view assumption. However, responses from 62% of the teams exhibited clear differences of opinions among team members. Further analysis of these latter teams revealed five patterns of differences.
The first two patterns were Minority Belief – Positive Weak and Minority Belief – Positive Moderate. In these teams, a minority of members sensed more psychological safety than the majority of team members to varying degrees (weak for 5% of the teams and moderate for 26% of the teams).
The final three were Minority Belief – Negative Weak, Minority Belief – Negative Moderate, and Minority Belief – Negative Severe. In these teams, a minority of members sensed less psychological safety than the majority of team members to varying degrees (weak for 21% of the teams, moderate for 24.9% of the teams, severe for 5.2% of the teams).
In terms of impact on team effectiveness, consensus teams had the highest performance and lowest levels of conflict. Minority Belief – Positive Weak teams had the second highest performance, high levels of respect for the leader and moderate levels of task and relationship conflict. In contrast, Minority Belief – Negative Weak teams showed greater task and relationship conflicts than 80% of the teams.
The authors of the study urge leaders who want to raise the levels of psychological safety within their team to reject the assumption that all members of a team share the same psychological safety perceptions. To help the team as a group to feel more psychologically safe, without paying attention to the different experiences and perceptions of individual team members, can undermine the leader’s efforts.
Leaders should also recognize how their positional power can influence what team members share with them. Individuals who perceive low levels of psychological safety are especially less likely to be forthcoming and honest when speaking to the boss about the team. Collecting information anonymously (e.g., through an anonymous survey) is more likely to yield the knowledge the leader requires to address psychological safety concerns.
Finally, leaders need to understand the different factors that influence psychological safety. Team tenure is one consideration. A relatively new team member will naturally feel less psychologically safe, but that should change over time. Another important factor: whether leaders maintain consistent relationships with all team members.
These recommendations will help leaders enhance the psychological safety essential to the effectiveness and performance of their teams.
Andy Loignon’s profile at the Center for Creative Leadership
Stephanie Wormington’s profile at the Center for Creative Leadership
Psychologically Safe for Some, but Not All? The Downsides of Assuming Shared Psychological Safety among Senior Leadership Teams. Andy Loignon and Stephanie Wormington. Center for Creative Leadership Report (May 2022).
Ideas for Leaders is a free-to-access site. If you enjoy our content and find it valuable, please consider subscribing to our Developing Leaders Quarterly publication, this presents academic, business and consultant perspectives on leadership issues in a beautifully produced, small volume delivered to your desk four times a year.
For the less than the price of a coffee a week you can read over 650 summaries of research that cost universities over $1 billion to produce.
Use our Ideas to:
Speak to us on how else you can leverage this content to benefit your organization. firstname.lastname@example.org