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Should I feel safe around you?

This is a question that every team member will ask themselves about their leader, non-consciously. We rely on our non-conscious thinking to make this critical assessment because it’s fast, so we get the survival benefit of this split-second judgement. If our answer is, ‘No, I don’t feel safe around you’, we will be on guard with this person, cautious about what we can do or say around them. We do not feel ‘psychologically safe’.

In the first article in this series on the critical leadership skill of deep listening, I pointed out that many benefits come from being able to listen openly, generously and without judgement. Increased psychological safety was just one of these benefits.

Psychological safety is a condition that exists when we feel safe disclosing what we really think and feel without being negatively judged by others. The condition seems deeply implicated in the functioning of effective work relationships, and so has been the subject of intense research recently including a landmark study at Google Inc.

Every year within Google, thousands of teams are formed around key projects, with the success of these projects largely dependent on the quality of teamwork. Google wanted to know what allowed teams to work at their best, so they set out to study hundreds of their own teams and examine all of the team research available outside the company. (Ref: 1) They found the number one influence on effective team functioning is psychological safety – that is, teams perform at their best when team members do not feel that they need to protect them- selves from each other. This allows them to feel they are free to say whatever it is they think or feel without fear of rejection or reprisal. In other words, they can be open and vulnerable with each other – they can speak up.

Safe to speak up

Organisational psychology experts Hemant Kakkar (London Business School) and Subra Tangirala (university of Maryland) reported that situational factors – rather than personality factors – lead employees to speak up. (Ref: 2) Situational factors generally boil down to leadership and culture – will my leader listen to me? Do I feel dissent is welcome? The authors argued, "Even people who are most inclined to raise ideas and suggestions may not do so if they fear being put down or penalized. On the flip side, encouraging and rewarding speaking up can help more people do so, even if their personality makes them more risk averse."

Not safe to speak up

In the air On 6 August 1997, Korean Air flight 801 crashed at Nimitz Hill, Guam. The plane had been cleared to land but crashed into high terrain about three miles south-west of the airport. The plane was destroyed on impact. The cause of the accident was discovered to be a malfunctioning altitude indicator on the captain’s side of the controls, which led him to descend the plane onto a ridge as it approached the airport. More tellingly, it was discovered that the First Officer’s indicator had been working perfectly but that he had failed to inform his Captain that he was jeopardising the flight. Studies of the flight’s voice recorder shed further light on the climate in the cockpit leading up to the crash, in which an overbearing and increasingly agitated Captain had instilled such a climate of fear that none of his subordinates dared question his decisions or raise their concerns – even in an apparent life or death situation.

During the late 1990s, Korean Air had more plane crashes than almost any other airline in the world for that period. When thinking of airline crashes, it’s easy to assume old planes and badly trained pilots were to blame. This wasn’t the case. What they were struggling with was a broader cultural issue where it felt unsafe for more junior team members to speak up.

In the operating theatre Rhode Island Hospital had a reputation as a leading medical institution – and as a place divided by internal tensions. In 2000, deep, simmering hostilities existed between nurses and physicians. "This place can be awful; the doctors make you feel like you’re worthless, like you’re disposable. Like you should be thankful to pick up after them," said one nurse. To deal with the tensions, nurses developed a whiteboard colour-coded system, denoting which surgeons were ‘jerks’, and which were ‘never to be contradicted because they would take your head off’. When a surgeon of the latter description insisted on proceeding with delicate brain surgery without verifying which side of the patient’s skull to open, the nurse knew by the colour on the whiteboard that the unwritten rules of the culture were clear – this surgeon always wins and was never to be questioned. The surgeon proceeded, and indeed opened the wrong side of the skull. The procedure took twice as long as it should have and the patient subsequently died.

Leaders make it safe or unsafe to speak up

The role of the leader in cultivating psychological safety cannot be overstated. When a team member feels psychologically unsafe and must protect themselves from their leader, undesirable workplace consequences can emerge:

  • Team members are less likely to speak up when they see a problem or issue in the workplace. usually, the problem gets worse and has a negative impact on productivity and safety. Many documented cases show examples of a lack of psychological safety contributing to a reluctance to speak up by a team member, leading to disastrous outcomes – including plane crashes, (Ref: 3) mine collapses and surgical deaths (Ref: 4).

  • Team members will be reluctant to disclose when they are struggling with a task or assignment or need coaching or support from their boss. Concerned that they will be judged and criticised rather than being supported, team members are more likely to hide their lack of progress until errors or failures show up, negatively affecting results.

  • Creativity and innovation are stifled because more diverse views and opinions are withheld, which otherwise may have led to breakthroughs in thinking. We know from research on inclusion that a huge upside comes from raising the volume of the lesser heard voices. Greater diversity of thought can lead to less-biased decision-making and greater collective intelligence. This has obvious implications for companies that need to develop new products, services and ways of working.

So if deep listening promotes psychological safety and all of its associated benefits, why do we often fail to do it well? One of the reasons is that we struggle to see the others persons perspective and feel uncomfortable with the other persons version of the truth. This is a barrier to deep listening, engagement and psychological safety that I’ll explore in the next instalment of this series on Deep Listening.

For more on this topic or other essential leadership issues please visit our website, read my other blog articles, listen to my podcast or read my book Xtraordinary: The Art and Science of Remarkable Leadership

1. Duhigg, C (2013), ‘What Google learned from its quest to build the perfect team’, New York Times, 28 February.

2. Kakkar, H & Tangirala, S (2018), ‘If your employees aren’t speaking up, blame company culture’, Harvard Business Review, Nov 6.

3. Phillips, M (2004), ‘Malcom Gladwell on culture, cockpit communication and plane crashes’, The Wall Street Journal, December 4.

4. Freeland, B (2012), ‘When bad communication kills’, Brush Talk, 6 August.


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