Thought Leadership

Psychological safety in teams & learning

We all know psychological safety matters. A wealth of evidence shows the connection between high levels of safety, engagement and team performance. But, what about psychological safety and learning specifically?

What can team leaders and L&D professionals do to foster psychological safety and boost learning – every day as well as in specific learning environments?

By drawing on the latest evidence and extensive experience, this insight piece explains:

  1. Why it matters and why now
  2. What is psychological safety
  3. Team as a context for learning
  4. The SPEAK framework – using proven strategies
  5. Knowing how you’re doing – measures
  6. Top tips for team leaders and L&D professionals
  7. Further resources and references

With increasing volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity – due to digitalization, big data, artificial intelligence, robotization, (de)globalization, terrorism, financial crises, climate change and global shifts in power – psychological safety has experienced a surge in interest.

Organizations are having to challenge long-held assumptions about productivity and how work happens. Increasing automation is changing what the work is, as well as how people interact and work together.

New ways of working, including an explosion in remote and hybrid working, have changed how we work together – blurring the boundaries between home and work. Managers are having to navigate conversations in new and potentially challenging territories.

“Psychological safety and courage are two sides of the same (immensely valuable) coin. Both are – and will continue to be – needed in a complex and uncertain world” (Edmondson, 2021).

What is psychological safety?

Psychologists and other academics have been writing about psychological safety since the mid-1960s. The leading researcher in the field is Amy Edmondson.

Her insights are based on almost 30 years of research, supported and reinforced by an extensive five-year research program with 15,000 employees at Google.

Psychological safety is fundamentally about interpersonal risk-taking. How do you judge the risk? What is at stake? Is the risk of speaking up greater than the risk of not? What are the likely consequences if you do and don’t?

Whether people feel safe enough to speak up is influenced by three key factors:

  • Previous experiences - have you or others been slammed for speaking up?
  • Impression management - we prefer to be considered smart, in the know and positive. Speaking up could jeopardize this perception.
  • My opinion won't count anyway - why bother?

A belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes, and that the team is safe for inter-personal risk taking. (Amy Edmondson)

Safe does not mean soft

A psychologically safe environment is not a soft environment, nor is it always comfortable.

There is an expectation of speaking up, high standards are encouraged, and mistakes are visible rather than hidden. It is not a panacea, but is a foundational factor needed for teams to thrive – work teams and learning teams alike.


Read more on psychological safety and how teams who learn together thrive together in our latest interactive insight paper.