My best friend, Quinn, made a huge mistake. Quinn works in medical sales. On an average day, he alertly views and assists spinal surgeries — awaiting the moment when the surgeon turns to him and asks for a critical surgical tool needed for the procedure.

In a situation like his, there is zero room for error. Another person’s life depends on everything going according to plan. It’s a job of high stress and high stakes.

The unconscious patient’s back was cut open on the operating table as the surgeon turned around to Quinn and asked for an integral instrument — and in that very moment, he realized that the crucial tool was not properly sanitized. It was contaminated.

Quinn had two options: admit his error, which could get him fired, or hand over the contaminated tool and hope for the best.

It’s never easy admitting that you made a mistake Click To Tweet

It’s never easy admitting that you made a mistake. Who wants to disappoint? If an individual doesn’t feel they are a navigating within a safe climate, odds are that they won’t take the risk to share their issues, concerns, and errors with others in that environment.

Taking a risk means being vulnerable and it’s not often that anyone wants to risk being rejected, disrespected or put-down when coming from an emotionally vulnerable place.

What Is Psychological Safety?

Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson coined the term “psychological safety” in a study she published in 1999. In a 2014 TEDx Talk, Amy describes psychological safety as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” And that psychological safety brings upon “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.”

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Edmondson’s research began with surveying medical teams at hospitals. To her surprise, she discovered the most successful teams were those who, ironically, made the most errors. The lesser performing teams were certainly not void of errors but the difference was they weren’t openly admitting and discussing those mistakes with their team members. It was through this study that Amy realized a vital factor for a successful collaborative workplace environment — psychological safety.

Google is one of many major companies taking lead with integrating psychological safety into team building fundamentals. In 2012, Google ignited an initiative called Project Aristotle. Its mission was to examine hundreds of teams at Google to find out why some flourished and others failed. An in-depth article published in the New York Times wrote on the findings of Project Aristotle:

We can’t be focused just on efficiency.

“What Project Aristotle has taught people within Google is that no one wants to put on a “work face” when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. But to be fully present at work, to feel “psychologically safe,” we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy. We can’t be focused just on efficiency.”

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Everyone Makes Mistakes

We would never learn, if it weren’t for the course-corrections that we’ve had to make along the way and the questions that we’ve asked in order to make those corrections.

How can a manager expect an employee to succeed in the workplace if they don’t feel safe speaking out about what they are going through, the mistakes they may have made, or the questions they have. Employees want to feel cared for on a personal and professional level. Not only will this “psychologically safe” work environment create successful teams and yield greater results, it will also retain the talent that now feels comfortable growing in the company.

Quinn ended up making the right choice. In a moment of high risk, he felt safe enough to express his error. The surgeon halted the surgery and the patient had to come back the following day. Instead of being reprimanded or even fired, Quinn’s manager commended him for his honesty, expressed that errors are inevitable (and that he, too, makes mistakes), and asked Quinn to be present at the surgery on the next day.

My friend expressed to me that this raised his confidence and also further established his commitment to the company.

Six Ways to Implement Psychological Safety in your Workplace

1. Keep an Open Door Policy

Be an approachable and accessible leader. Offer advice or a listening ear on an “open door” basis. It’s likely that if your employee is going through a difficult time, they won’t want to bring it to the attention of several other people, they’ll want to know they can speak directly to you.

2. Express Fallibility

Admit your own mistakes and failures. Mistakes you’ve made in the past and present, and how that lead you to the leadership role that you are in today. This will not only allow your team to see you in more approachable light, but it will also boost their confidence knowing they can grow and learn after making errors.

3. Ask Questions

Lead by example. If you want your employees to be engaged by asking questions — lead by asking them questions. This will open up a diverse and engaging conversation within the team instead of team members being “preached” to and staying silent.

4. Encourage Handwritten Recognition

Offer stationary to employees to write handwritten cards to one another. Encourage them to write cards not only when a team member has made an accomplishment but also when they are going through a difficult time — whether in their personal life or at the workplace. This will create a caring ethos and bring team members closer. A study by OGO revealed that 40 percent of employed Americans said they would put forth more energy into their work if they were recognized more often.

5. Offer Flexible Hours

Your employees have a life outside of the office and that comes with its own set of stressors. Offer flexible working hours — especially when an employee is going through a family emergency, illness, or are in the early days of getting back to the office post-parental leave.

6. Establish a Peer Bonus Program

It’s one thing to receive positive recognition from your manager (i.e. during a performance review) but it’s another when you receive recognition for your everyday contributions and achievements from your coworkers.

“In a business that depends on collaboration, you should receive your bonus from your colleagues (not from your manager) with a peer-to-peer bonus system,” author Jurgen Appelo writes in Forbes.

When JetBlue implemented a peer bonus program, the company saw a 3 percent increase in retention and 2 percent increase in engagement for every 10 percent increase their employees reporting in being recognized. 

  • Louis Opata

    How then will a supervisor punish errors committed by subordinates?