Psychological safety, a term coined and defined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, is a belief that you will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.
📌 The enemy of psychological safety is… comfort?
You might think that the opposite of a psychologically safe team environment is fear and discomfort.
In fact, teams that don’t have the kind of psychological safety that supports speaking up may feel very comfortable with the way things are. And fighting this comfort can be tougher than fixing a fear culture!
💡 In practice, we don’t speak up against the ideas and decisions of others because we choose the more comfortable route. It’s more agreeable to be, well, agreeable.
This is because we perceive speaking up as an interpersonal risk. It runs counter to our desire to maintain an image that we are kind, competent and easy to maintain a rapport with.
We naturally avoid interpersonal risks for fear of seeming rude, holding everyone back from finishing the meeting, weakening a newfound alliance, revealing we weren’t listening closely enough to ‘get it’ – and so on.
To reshape what’s comfortable, a team needs to take interpersonal risks, again and again. This allows small acts of courage to accumulate into a shared sense that it isn’t that risky to be “risky”.
Repeat this quick six-point process to help your team take these small risks together day in, day out.
✅ Notice when comfort is prioritized over interpersonal risk-taking. Get to know when teammates are sitting on their hands or holding their tongues.
Common signs? Lazy nods of agreement, agreeable shrugs, silence when asked directly for critique.
✅ Voice what you think the interpersonal risk holding the person or group back might be. Acknowledge how small the risk or discomfort is.
“I know most of you in the room are new to seeing this kind of data and don’t want to look like you’re overstepping if you challenged the conclusions. But your take is as valuable as any expert’s at this stage…”
✅ Ask for a different idea from the room or a specific person.
“…Alice, can you suggest where one of our blindspots might be?”
✅ Show curiosity in the new idea and reflect on it out loud, even if it seems nonsensical to you at the time.
✅ Give thanks for speaking up and remind them they’re making everyone better by speaking up.
“I’m so glad we challenged that just now. Well done for sharing a new perspective that shook up consensus.”
✅ Pass it on. Ask if anyone else can build upon what was just shared or put the ball in someone else’s court to raise the next point.
. . .
The bottom line?
Paradoxically, when teams lack psychological safety to speak up, they can actually feel safe. That’s because avoiding the associated interpersonal risks is comfortable. Prompt little interpersonal risks every day by voicing the discomfort and then stepping over it together.
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