Leadership and Management Development

Psychological safety has rapidly become the unicorn of corporate culture and the focus of team and leadership development interventions.

We use the term to underline the search for a competitive advantage that retains talent, embraces diversity and generates creativity, innovation and outstanding teamworking – sounds pretty great doesn’t it!

But how do we rein in this mystical beast and sprinkle some of its magical fairy dust across the corporate landscape?

First, let’s clear up what we mean by psychological safety, and its origin.

Psychological safety is a form of social climate that is conducive to individual growth and organisational performance. It can exist within an organisation or in groups or communities – it is an environment that’s collectively created by everyone involved.

One of the pioneers behind the research and who coined the term ‘Psychological safety’ is Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management Amy Edmondson.

Edmondson has been recognized by the biannual Thinkers50 global ranking of management thinkers since 2011, ranking #1 in 2021; she also received that organisation’s Breakthrough Idea Award in 2019, and Talent Award in 2017.  Edmondson studies ‘teaming’, psychological safety, and organisational learning, and her articles have been published in numerous academic and management outlets, including Administrative Science Quarterly, Academy of Management Journal, Harvard Business Review and California Management Review.

One of her most recent books, ‘The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth’ (Wiley, 2019), offers a practical guide for organisations who are serious about success in the modern economy and it has been translated into 15 languages. (Harvard Business School Faculty biography)

In essence, Edmondson describes the environment of psychological safety as:

"a shared belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up honestly."

This definition encompasses three key elements:

<p>Individuals must feel safe to express their thoughts and feelings without fear of judgement</p>

Individuals must feel safe to express their thoughts and feelings without fear of judgement

<p>They must feel that their contributions are valued and will not be dismissed</p>

They must feel that their contributions are valued and will not be dismissed

<p>They must believe that they will not be blamed or reprimanded for making mistakes</p>

They must believe that they will not be blamed or reprimanded for making mistakes

In order to create a psychologically safe environment, organisations need to foster trust and respect amongst employees. This can be done through open communication, clear expectations and standards, and regular, in the moment, well delivered feedback. And as always, this needs to be demonstrated through the behaviours of our leaders as they give direction to the culture of the organisation.

Amongst many benefits, psychological safety is essential for promoting creativity and innovation. When employees feel safe to take risks and share their ideas, they are more likely to come up with new and innovative solutions… including the weird and wonderful, which we all know sparks the next phase of innovation. Without this climate, people become silent, they don’t share ideas, they hide mistakes and the last thing on their mind is giving well delivered developmental feedback that lands with good intentions.

Although a new word on the street, psychological safety has been a basic human principle since we ventured out of caves and started to trust our fellow cave-people some 3.5 million years ago (give or take a few thousand years).

Back in the day we gathered in circles around a fire, sharing stories of hunting and gathering whilst everyone could see over each other’s shoulder, knowing that if a predator approached, a warning could be given. At the time it was unknown, but we were made to feel safe in the knowledge that everyone had each other’s backs.

Fast forward three million years and our teams are now far from gathering in a circle, we’re distributed and sat behind screens showing 2D images of our colleagues from the shoulders up. Sure, the occasional invasion of a child wanting food, or a family pet hoping for a walk does create understanding and empathy, but we’re missing so much more of what it means to have a connection, and achieving the unicorn-like state of psychological safety becomes even more challenging.

There are many approaches organisations can take to start the process of creating an environment of psychological safety that starts at the top and filters down, but let’s get back to basics and look at how each individual can make a contribution.

The power of vulnerability, and how it’s the foundation of psychological safety.

If you’re comfortable being vulnerable in a group, it’s likely that there’s psychological safety. Being vulnerable is when someone lets others in. They share personal and professional challenges and lean into the discomfort when it’s felt.

Our go-to researcher on this subject is speaker, author, story teller and all-round amazing human being, Brené Brown – Brené, we salute you!!

Brené Brown is a leading expert on the power of vulnerability. She has conducted extensive research on the topic and has written several books on the subject. Her blog offers a massive amount of free resource and her work in the classroom is helping teachers and pupils flourish.

Brown’s Ted Talk on the power of vulnerability threw her into the public eye and has been viewed more than 33 million times, making it one of the most popular TED Talks ever, this coupled with her Netflix original makes her the most visible on the scene.

At the heart of this research is the belief that vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity and innovation, and a strength, not a weakness.

Brown argues that we need to embrace our vulnerabilities in order to connect with others and create meaningful relationships. She has shown that vulnerability can be a powerful tool for change and underpin an individual's ability to fully engage in an environment of psychological safety.

Vulnerability is a topic that is gathering momentum in the workplace. Organisations are beginning to realise the importance of creating a safe environment where employees feel comfortable expressing their emotions, challenges and concerns. This does take courage and is achieved through repetition and time.

Coupling the work of Edmondson and Brown offers a powerful resource on how we can create an environment of psychological safety. But creating the environment is just one part of the story, the true magic to this tale lies in the marginal gains created by everyone involved being conscious of their attitudes and actions, and taking small steps towards building trusting relationships with those around them.

This was quantified by one of Google’s longitudinal studies where they set out to explore and measure what made a great team great, and they called it project Aristotle.

Project Aristotle followed the success of Project Oxygen, which set out to identify what makes a great manager. The People Analytics team at Google applied the same methodology with the understanding that at Google ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ hence the snappy code name Project Aristotle. you can read more about this here, but spoiler alert – here are some highlights.

The researchers collecting the data found that great teams are more about how they function together, than who they have on the team. They identified five key elements of great teamworking, which fell into the following order of importance:

Psychological Safety

Team members can speak up take risks and be vulnerable with each other


Team members get things done, they follow through and meet the high expectations Google sets

Structure & Clarity

Everyone on the team has clear roles, goals expectations and objectives


The work they do is personally meaningful, they can connect with the purpose and the vision is engaging


Teammates believe that their work both matters and creates change, and they see the outcome of their efforts.

In summary, psychological safety isn’t something that’s created at the wave of a wand, or something you can simply buy in. If you want your business to benefit from this environment you need to stop thinking about the benefits to the business and start focusing on the benefits to your people.

Everything we do here at Unify seeks to create a psychologically safe environment. We believe in being human and setting the scene for teams and leaders to create genuinely deep and meaningful relationships with each other.

This depth and meaning naturally leads to a safe environment where a team has each other’s back, they lean into the discomfort and engage in vulnerability-based conversations that bring out the best in everyone.

For more information on how you can start or even continue building psychological safety get in touch and our team will set aside time to share some ideas.

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James Hampton (He/Him)

James Hampton (He/Him)



Our areas of specialism.


  • Self-awareness

  • Resilience

  • Personal Development

  • Change

  • Decision making

  • Growth mindset

Team development.

  • Hybrid team working

  • Communication

  • Meetings

  • Feedback

  • Collaboration

  • Trust

Leadership development.

  • Leadership styles

  • Psychological safety

  • Leading change

  • Mission, vision, values

  • Culture

  • Mentoring