A brief history of psychological safety
Dr. Amy C. Edmondson is often credited with coining the term “psychological safety”—and, more particularly, framing the concept in workplace terms. In 1999, Edmondson defined psychological safety in the workplace as “the 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 interpersonal risk taking.”
Before Edmondson, various researchers had explored the idea of psychological safety, positing that its presence reduced interpersonal risk and made for a generally healthier workplace. Harvard Business Review covers the topic extensively.
It’s a relatively simple concept, yet one that was rare in practice for decades—even centuries. For years, many organizations operated as pseudo dictatorships, with one foreman, director, or executive mandating the way work was approached. Fear of retribution reigned. Workers, whether on an assembly line in a factory or at typewriters in an office, were generally expected to put up and shut up—feelings and ideas be damned.
But Edmondson—and before her, thinkers like W.E. Deming and William Kahn—challenged that notion. They believed that psychological safety was not only essential to fostering new ideas and innovation, but that its absence in the workplace actually enabled errors.
Deming is credited with saying: “Where there is fear, there will be wrong figures.”
Today’s workers want more. They value community in the workplace, and they crave connection. But that connection is only possible when team members feel safe, unafraid of being reprimanded or punished for speaking up, expressing alternative ideas, or simply making mistakes. More employers recognize the importance of psychological safety, but they have little idea how to cultivate it.