Psychological safety was identified as a core ingredient for creating effective teams by a recent Google study.1 While the benefits of a psychologically safe environment have been discussed fairly widely, more recently there’s been talk of it’s dark side, which might lead to a path of dubious behaviour and decision making.
What is psychological safety?
Teams with a climate of psychological safety work with the belief that a team member will not be punished or embarrassed for voicing ideas, questions or mistakes.2 Respect and trust are hallmarks of these teams and consequently each individual feels valued and safe to contribute, take risks and lead when it seems fitting.3 In Google’s study, it was revealed that psychological safety is the one thing that the highest performing teams all share, enabling people to engage, connect, change, and learn.4
The dark side
Most of the articles you’ll read will list the benefits of creating psychological safety, and of course there are many, but more recently people have started to consider the dark side. Psychological safety is a somewhat dual edged sword; the very thing that helps us to perform to our best, can also bring out our worst.
In psychologically safe environments people are entirely accepting of one another. This can be great when working collaboratively on projects as the team feels comfortable challenging each other and equally, they’re open to being challenged back. This results in only the best projects being started, developed and delivered. But what if there was a shared acceptance of bad behaviour? Researchers have found that team members who feel psychologically safe also feel safe enough to behave in a way that pushes the boundaries of ethical behaviour.5 The study looking into psychological safety asked teams of students to self-evaluate a piece of their own coursework, creating an opportunity for students to cheat and award themselves with top marks. As the teams had already been working together for months, people got the chance to bond and feel psychologically safe. The study found that only the psychologically safe teams were willing to suggest cheating and then carry it out, taking comfort in the knowledge that they wouldn’t be judged—or worse, ratted out—by the rest of the group.1
Top tip: Remind people of moral standards to help minimise unethical behaviour.
A study into behaviour change and dishonesty looked at two sets of participants.6 Prior to taking a test, one of the groups was encouraged to recite the 10 Commandments. The results found that the group who recited the 10 Commandments was less likely to cheat in the test compared to those who did not recite the 10 Commandments. By making unethical behaviour more prominent and noticed, people paid greater attention to their own moral standards and questioned the morality of their actions before performing them. The contagion of unethical behaviour amongst psychologically safe teams can be controlled if team leaders draw their team’s attention back to desirable behaviours. Through role modelling ethical behaviour and reminding their team of moral standards, team leaders can promote ethical standards and help minimise unethical behaviour.
Although research has started to suggest that there might be a dark side to psychological safety, it should not make organisations overlook its value. Simply being aware of the potential dark side and reminding people of moral standards where necessary, can help team leaders harness psychological safety as a power for good.
1Quartz. 2016. Psychology can explain why wildly successful teams get tempted to the dark side. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.qz.com/820763/psychological-safety-is-crucial-for-great-teamwork-but-it-has-a-dark-side/. [Accessed 12 October 2018].
2Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), 350-383.
3Erdem, F., Ozen J., & Atsan N. (2003). The relationship between trust and team performance. Work Study, 52(7), 337-340.
4Wanless, S. (2016) ‘The Role of Psychological Safety in Human Development’, Research in Human Development, 13: 6–14 DOI: 10.1080/15427609.2016.1141283
5Pearsall, M., & Ellis, A. (2011). Thick as thieves: The effects of ethical orientation and psychological safety on unethical team behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96 (2), 401-411
6Gino, F, et al. (2009) ‘The Effect of One Bad Apple on the Barrel’, Contagion and Differentiation in Unethical Behavior 20(3) pp 393-398