In This Article Psychological Safety

  • Introduction
  • Seminal Psychological Safety Research: A Historical Perspective
  • Comprehensive Literature Reviews
  • Measuring Psychological Safety
  • Related Constructs
  • Future Directions of Psychological Safety Research

Management Psychological Safety
by
Ryan L. Klinger, Mahdi Forghani
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846740-0154

Introduction

Organizations stand to benefit from the process improvement outcomes that result from employees’ creative ideas, innovative behaviors, and proactive suggestions (see the Oxford Bibliographies in Management Studies articles “Creativity”, “Innovative Behavior”, and “Employee Voice.” Employees, however, may recognize risks associated with such activities: an idea may not be accepted or, if accepted, may not produce the intended results, a suggestion may benefit some stakeholders at the expense of others, etc. Psychological safety (PS) reflects employee beliefs about the safety of interpersonal risk taking; employees who perceive their work environments as psychologically safe are more likely to take risks due to the reduced fear of negative repercussions. Conceptualized across multiple levels of analysis (individual-, team-, and organizational levels), this construct is an important feature in a variety of organizational research streams. Most notably, researchers often model psychological safety as an explanatory factor of individual attitudes and behaviors, team information sharing and innovativeness, and organizational change and performance. Recent research has begun to explore cross-level relationships, cross-cultural comparisons, and the potential dark side of psychological safety.

Seminal Psychological Safety Research: A Historical Perspective

The concept of psychological safety was first introduced in the organizational change literature. Early work by Kurt Lewin in the 1940s recognized a three-stage—unfreeze, change, refreeze—process of organizational change. Before change can occur, organizations must “unfreeze” by breaking the pressure to sustain the status quo. After change occurs, organizations “refreeze” to institutionalize change. Schein and Bennis 1965 introduces the importance of psychological safety during the unfreezing process as a contextual determinant of whether individuals are receptive to learning. Schein 1993 addresses the anxiety associated with learning, suggesting that organizational leaders invest in creating a psychologically safe climate in order to eliminate this anxiety and facilitate unfreezing. Kahn 1990 was instrumental in taking psychological safety out of the organizational change literature and introducing it to the broader domain of organizational behavior. Kahn’s grounded theory approach to understanding the differences between engaged and disengaged workers recognized the importance of individuals’ psychological safety. Kahn’s qualitative exploration of potential antecedents to PS, including individual differences, interpersonal relationships, group dynamics, leader behaviors, and organizational norms, would guide dozens of empirical examinations in the decades to follow. Perhaps no single person has been more instrumental to the proliferation of PS research than Amy Edmondson, who first introduced an empirical measure of PS. Whereas Schein and colleagues explored psychological safety as a climate-type predictor of organizational outcomes and Kahn conceptualized PS at the individual level, Amy Edmondson treated PS as a team-level shared belief. Edmondson 1999 linked team PS to team learning behaviors; teams that shared a belief about their psychological safety were more likely to ask for help, discuss errors, and seek information from others.

  • Edmondson, Amy. “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams.” Administrative Science Quarterly 44.2 (1999): 350–383.

    DOI: 10.2307/2666999E-mail Citation »

    Provides the first—and most commonly used—instrument for measuring psychological safety. Conceptualizes PS as a team-level shared belief that facilitates learning behaviors at work. Also identifies organizational support and leader behaviors as antecedents of psychological safety. Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • Kahn, William A. “Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work.” Academy of Management Journal 33.4 (1990): 692–724.

    DOI: 10.2307/256287E-mail Citation »

    Grounded in two qualitative research studies, Kahn framed psychological safety as one of three critical psychological conditions—along with meaningfulness and availability—that influences whether employees are engaged or disengaged at work. Kahn also provided the first comprehensive description of psychological safety antecedents clustered into four categories: interpersonal relationships, group and intergroup dynamics, management style and processes, and organizational norms. Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • Schein, Edgar H. “How Can Organizations Learn Faster? The Challenge of Entering the Green Room.” Sloan Management Review 34.2 (1993): 85–92.

    E-mail Citation »

    Discusses anxiety as a deterrent to organizational change; status quo is maintained as an ego-protecting defense mechanism. Schein argues that psychological safety reduces anxiety during the learning process of organizational change. Available online by subscription.

  • Schein, Edgar H., and Warren Bennis. Personal and Organizational Change via Group Methods. New York: Wiley, 1965.

    E-mail Citation »

    First introduced the term psychological safety as a catalyst for organizational change. Schein and Bennis built on Lewin’s three-stage model of organizational learning and change by suggesting that psychologically safe work environments facilitate the “unfreezing” process where employees become perceptive to changes to the status quo.

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