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Trying to drive psychological safety higher? Why it may backfire for HR

Peter Cappelli, Wharton
Peter Cappelli
Peter Cappelli is HRE’s Talent Management columnist and a fellow of the National Academy of Human Resources. He is the George W. Taylor Professor of Management and director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He can be emailed at [email protected]

Behavioral concepts like employee engagement start out as academic ideas with reasonably modest implications. If they catch on, they get blown up in the practitioner world into something almost indistinguishable from the original idea and the evidence for it.

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Something like this has happened with the notion of psychological safety, which began life as an idea that fit pretty well with common sense: A psychologically safe environment is one where you can take risks without suffering “interpersonal harm.” Where might we want to take risks at work? When we need to be creative, learn something new, try something that hasn’t been done before. What is interpersonal harm? Being made fun of, criticized or otherwise attacked. If you have psychological safety in those contexts, the evidence is strong that outcomes are better, and the reverse is true if you do not have it.

My colleagues Liat Eldor and Michal Hodor and I just published a study looking into the limits of psychological safety in more routine contexts. While every job could have some situation where we need creativity and innovative outcomes—lean production, for example, requires that teams figure out how to improve quality and performance—these contexts are rare. There are actually very few jobs where innovation is a central need: Only 16 occupations out of 926 have “innovation” as a central attribute in the Bureau of Labor Statistics O*Net database. Most jobs, most of the time, involve routine tasks that do not require any creativity. We find that in those jobs, high levels of psychological safety actually reduce job performance.

Psychological safety and job performance

How could that be? It is hard to see anything good about a situation where people feel attacked or made fun of, and we certainly don’t see any evidence for that. We also find that unsafe situations are bad for performance even in routine tasks. But psychological safety is not an “either/or” outcome. What we find is that when psychological safety is at a very high level, performance is worse. You might think of these situations as ones where it is difficult to see any chance that you will be criticized.

The academic research on psychological safety makes clear that psychological safety does not imply that there are no consequences for poor performance. But the kind of context and consequences that are appropriate for brainstorming and other creative tasks (where there should not be negative consequences for bad outcomes; “no bad ideas here!”) is not appropriate for our day-to-day routine tasks—where we don’t want creativity, where there may well be right ways to do things and really wrong ways as well. To see this, consider one of the key questions used to assess psychological safety: “If I make a mistake, will it be held against me?” In a creative context, the answer should be no. In our day-to-day jobs, the answer is, invariably, yes.

See also: 4 ways to preserve culture during rapid growth

One problem we see with high levels of psychological safety, therefore, is mixing up these two quite different contexts. Trying to drive it to a high level in creative tasks makes perfect sense. Trying to drive it to a high level in our everyday jobs does not. But that, in fact, is what is happening in most organizations. We are seeing HR groups measuring psychological safety overall, which is overwhelming in contexts where work is routine, and trying to push it higher.

Another problem with psychological safety

In my opinion, there is a second, inevitable problem here about negative consequences and interpersonal harm. We might imagine that we could have negative consequences for poor performance and not feel it as a personal criticism, but that is likely to be a stretch in practice. Could we imagine a context where our supervisor gives us a bad performance appraisal, yet we do not take it personally? It’s possible but not likely. The only way to have really high levels of psychological safety reported by our employees is if we did not think there was much of a chance of those consequences happening.

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Here’s the point: There is nothing wrong with the basic concept of psychological safety. It is an important concept to pay attention to in those unique situations where it matters. There is also nothing to be gained from interpersonal harm as an approach to supervision. But in regular, day-to-day jobs, mistakes are not about the need to be creative—there are going to be consequences for them—and pushing front-line managers to drive psychological safety ever higher is a bad idea with bad consequences for performance.