From safe space to first place

In her new column, Korn Ferry's Amelia Haynes explains why a lack of psychological safety in the workplace can derail high-performance—and what leaders can do to create winning teams.

Amelia Haynes

Associate Researcher, Korn Ferry Institute

Leaders and organizations are devoting tremendous resources to reskilling and upskilling their workforces, and yet top teams are still struggling with retention, performance, and engagement. In fact, a Korn Ferry study found that only 21% of top teams were considered outstanding, while a staggering 79% were rated as mediocre or poor.

Neuroscience research shows us that being talented, well-resourced, and highly skilled is not enough for top teams to perform well. Instead, studies have found that to excel, team members need to know that their mistakes won't be their downfall. They need their workplaces to be psychologically safe—that is, where interpersonal risk-taking is accepted and welcomed. And this means organizations need to invest in their culture to take a team from surviving to thriving.

Organizational psychologist William Kahn first explored the idea of psychological safety back in 1990, identifying it as a condition for personal engagement. According to Kahn, psychological safety allows employees to be themselves and fully engaged in the workplace "without fear of negative consequences to self-image, status, or career." In the late 1990s, leadership expert Amy Edmondson expanded on this research, describing psychological safety as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” Since then, psychological safety has been woven into discussions of engagement, team effectiveness, innovation, risk taking, and team success.

But amid all the chatter, many are still taking shots in the dark trying to define what is a psychologically safe environment, and more importantly, how to create one. We look to neuroscience to help us unpack this phenomenon and harness the full potential of top teams.

The neuroscience of psychological safety

We know, from neuroscience, that psychological safety is rooted in the way that our brains process social threats and social pain. When we experience a social threat, our brain goes into a state of threat response, increasing production of cortisol, adrenaline, or epinephrine, thereby escalating stress, mistrust, hostility, and disgust. According to researchers, certain types of social threats—like threats to security, status, fairness, autonomy, and trust—can produce this kind of response in the brain and body. Studies show that the brain processes social pain as though it were physical pain; it is physically taxing to feel unsafe in our environments.

We can decrease threat responses by appealing to positive domains of social experience, including our sense of security, status, fairness, autonomy, and trust. When we see positive affirmations in these domains, our brains produce more oxytocin and serotonin, which in turn boosts collaboration, cohesiveness, trust, and empathy. While perceived threats trigger the brain’s primary threat circuitry, relative or perceived increases in these domains trigger the reward circuitry.

People do not prioritize social threats and rewards the same way, though. Psychological safety is somewhat complicated by individual differences in needs—we all have different thresholds for whether and how we may process experiences as threatening or not. Some research suggests that differences in how we evaluate these domains may be seen cross-culturally as well as across individuals. However, these five domains of social threat and reward generally hold true across individuals and populations, albeit to varying degrees and with varying importance.

Promoting a clear set of values and beliefs based on trust, connection, empathy, and shared responsibility supports psychological safety. It is preserved by serotonin and oxytocin, the former of which helps us form bonds through love and trust, allowing us to look out for those around us and strive to do right by those we are accountable to. A steady flow of serotonin and oxytocin signals that a person or a group is not experiencing threats, does not have to act out of self-preservation, and can thus work to maintain and promote group interests.

3 ways to promote psychological safety in the workplace

Minimizing social and environmental triggers of threat responses seems like an obvious benefit. However, reducing threats may present a double-edged sword. Studies show that experiencing and overcoming adversity can help people build resilience and emerge as extraordinary leaders. In fact, many successful leaders describe intense, traumatic, and unplanned life events as transformative, contributing to their unique leadership skills. We must not, then, confuse reducing unnecessary social and environmental threats with rejecting the critical discomforts that result in transformation and growth. By misinterpreting or overapplying threat reduction strategies, companies could inadvertently find themselves ill-prepared for a disruptive future.

But not all challenging experiences need to be hardships to foster growth. Conflict over the timeline of a high-priority project, for example, can help team members learn how to better manage difficult conversations without causing unnecessary social and environmental threats (like the fear of losing a job for speaking up). Leaders, instead, should strive to set challenging but achievable goals for teams in a psychologically safe environment.

Companies and their leaders have a unique responsibility to set the tone for their teams, serving as role models in fostering the kind of culture they want their teams to have. But psychological safety is everyone’s job. It’s not the end goal of our actions, but rather a conscious choice that must be made every day—a critical input that fosters teams to be great. Here are three strategies leaders can put into practice to support psychologically safe environments that allow their teams to thrive:

1. Don’t forget the soft skills.

With a seemingly ever-increasing focus on hard skills, it is important to remember that much of what makes a leader effective is some of the soft skills. In fact, according to LinkedIn, 5 out of the top 10 most in-demand skills  for 2023 were Management, Communication, Customer Service, Leadership, and Teamwork—all soft skills that contribute to the creation of a psychologically safe environment. Invest in these skills for yourself and your teams by modeling these skills themselves and offering training to direct reports.

2. Prioritize transparency.

Work is not always going to be comfortable, but there are ways to make the discomfort meaningful. Leaders can explain the purpose behind challenging assignments. Acknowledge that growth can be uncomfortable, but don’t stop listening for what kind or level of discomfort people are experiencing. Moreover, remember that transparency must exist in both directions. Asking for feedback is different from creating an environment where people feel safe to give it. Be sure that your direct reports are safe in sharing their feedback with you and be sure that you are prepared to hear it.

3. Know yourself.

Pay attention to yourself, your behaviors, your emotions. What makes you feel safe? What makes you feel threatened? How does your behavior change in those circumstances? How can you communicate those things to the people around you? When you grow your emotional awareness, you make it possible to take care of yourself and for others to help care for you. Indeed, one Korn Ferry study found that 92% of leaders strong in emotional self-awareness had teams with high energy and high performance.

For more information, learn about Korn Ferry’s capabilities on High-Performing Executive Teams.