Atg Logo Vector

Creating Psychologically Safe Organizations

Megan Abman and Karyn Lu are co-founders of Strata RMK, a diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging ("DEI&B") consultancy working closely with organizations all over the world to foster brave spaces and reimagine the future of work. We asked them a few questions on the importance of psychological safety in the workplace and how to start those conversations to build a safe space for everyone. Their well-received live web event, Creating Psychologically Safe Organizations is now available on-demand in the Advance Learning Center.
Mentoring Is A Beneficial Activity At Any Age

You can view their on-demand presentation on the Advance Learning Center.

How do we measure psychological safety within a team?

This is a great question. Many people don’t realize that psychological safety is something that is quantifiable and measurable! When we work with our partners to evolve their employee engagement surveys with a DEI&B lens, we always add questions that will enable them to measure psychological safety over time.

Here are a few example survey questions, which are all measured on a five point Likert Scale:

  • I feel comfortable sharing unique aspects of myself at [Company]. 
  • I can take risks at [Company].
  • If I make a mistake on my team, I do not question whether or not I belong. 
  • I feel comfortable saying, “I don’t know.”
  • Working with members of my team, my skills and talents are valued and utilized. 
  • When working alongside one another, we are open to change and new ideas.

When these questions are in place consistently over time, organizations that are committed to fostering psychological safety will be able to quantifiable demonstrate the efficacy of their DEI&B efforts — not just for the majority, but by different populations. Let’s say your baseline survey revealed that the BIPOC population at your organization scored much lower on feeling like they can take risks at work, as compared with non-BIPOC folks. Over time, if that score increases and you’re able to achieve parity due to increased acts of allyship — meaning you’re getting meaningful contributions more often from everyone – that’s something to celebrate!

How does a lack of psychological safety on a team impact workplace productivity?

We only have so much cognitive energy to dedicate to anything at one time. If someone is spending a great deal of effort hiding or masking parts of themselves, code switching, or constantly dealing with impression management (the fear of appearing incompetent, ignorant, negative or intrusive in a workgroup situation), it makes sense there’s less energy remaining to put your best self toward work. There’s a direct relationship here: if impression management is high, psychological safety is low; and vice versa.

Psychological safety and accountability are related as well, as demonstrated by this graphic:

Auto Draft -

It’s important to note that psychological safety alone isn’t enough to guarantee great work. It’s possible to have high productivity without psychological safety – that happens in the anxiety zone, which many managers mistake for success because you may see great work being produced, but unfortunately this way of working is unsustainable. In order for productivity to sustain, both psychological safety and accountability are necessary.

Finally, let’s be careful about what we mean by focusing on “productivity” while we remain in a period of chronic stress and trauma. As we navigate these times, we are all responsible for reframing what productivity truly means when balanced against the need to care for the wellbeing of our entire workforce.

How has remote work changed the nature of psychological safety?

This really depends on the team. Assuming your team wasn’t always remote prior to the pandemic, if you have not been intentionally investing in your culture during this time, it’s quite possible that psychological safety is suffering now.

Remote work has added stresses like unstable childcare and heightened awareness of racial disparities, and also new freedoms such as greater flexibility and balance. Different populations are having very different experiences as it relates to psychological safety. Consider, for example, that BIPOC employees have a greater preference for continued remote work than white employees because this time has frankly been a reprieve from suffering daily microaggressions at the office.

Not only is it possible to prioritize psychological safety in a world of remote work, it’s imperative in order to build resilience. Making a collective commitment to psychological safety and all speaking the same language around what this means is a great place to start. This means more intentionally examining how we communicate remotely, documenting unsaid team norms, and establishing a framework for giving and receiving inclusionary and equitable feedback. And it can’t just be all about business right now. Teams that carve out regular time to get to know each other (for example, starting each meeting with a short connection exercise), to laugh together, to share lessons learned from failures, to find ways to be playful together even when things are hard – these are the ones that are building greater psychological safety and resilience.

One final tip – if you’re a manager, your employees are 35% more likely to adapt to changes in work conditions if you have regular check-ins with them about non-work-related activities. Every act and moment, no matter how big or small, matters when it comes to psychological safety.

What are some conversations that build psychological safety in the workplace?

Every conversation builds or diminishes psychological safety in the workplace. First, let’s note that how we have conversations matters just as much as what we talk about when it comes to building psychological safety in the workplace. Google’s Project Aristotle revealed that the two core behavioral components we can all practice in daily conversation are: ostentatious listening and equality in conversational turn-taking

Conversations that build psychological safety involve plenty of intentionality, empathy, vulnerability, grace, a willingness to talk about or even celebrate risks and failures, and different acts of allyship big and small – such as making space for everyone’s voices to be heard, or encouraging your team to practice dissent in order to elevate the value of healthy conflict.

This graphic provides some fantastic examples on having conversations that build psychological safety:

Auto Draft -

Here’s the best part: when you have high levels of psychological safety on your team, you’re all better equipped to have hard conversations about anything. Not so long ago, before the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, many of us probably would have never imagined that abortion would become a workplace topic. We can no longer ask employees to silo what is happening in the world and in politics from their identities or how they show up for work. As the need increases for our ability to have difficult and uncomfortable conversations at work, remember that uncomfortable does not mean unsafe. It is absolutely critical that we invest in building psychological safety with every conversation – both what we talk about and how we talk about it together.

Vulnerability is a privilege not everyone has access to in some workspaces. How do leaders create a space for vulnerability that extends to people within marginalized communities?

Many leaders may not feel comfortable showing vulnerability at work, but the most important thing they can do is to lead by example and model vulnerability. Not only will this help you show up as more human, the act of modeling vulnerability provides permission to others to also show up imperfectly. 

In our work, we often see employees who are scared to speak up or take risks because they’ve never heard their leaders say “I don’t know,” or admit to having failed at something. Something as simple as making it normal to say “I don’t know” at work can open the doors for others to emulate this behavior. Consider holding space especially to share failures and lessons learned (an internal ‘FailCon’ is a great way to ritualize these conversations). As a leader, being willing to share your own vulnerability will alleviate some of the pressure you carry internally to know all the answers or to be perfect, and in turn, you will be able to build more trust and empower all of your employees with more agency to to be vulnerable, to feel safe asking for help, and to take risks.

“When people are willing to be authentic at work, they’re also more willing to take creative risks, share their perspectives without fear of a consequence, and make valuable contributions that can only be expressed within a culture that values trust and inclusion.” (HBR: The Best Leaders Aren’t Afraid to Be Vulnerable)

If the culture of the company isn’t a safe one, how can leaders provide a level of safety within a team or department?

While leaders can reinforce an organization-wide commitment to building psychological safety, it’s important to recognize that everyone leads by example when it comes to action, and that everyone’s behavior matters. It is not the job of leaders to somehow bestow psychological safety onto the team, nor is that even possible to achieve. In this work, the mentality must be do with, not for.

In our work, we often come across leaders who themselves feel a lack of psychological safety. No matter how hard they try, it seems, they’re getting attacked from every angle. Instead of looking up to leadership to provide psychological safety and pointing fingers when it still feels lacking, it may be helpful to train ourselves to look down and across instead. Here, having everyone speak the same language is essential. Regardless of your position and the level of psychological safety currency you hold, it can be powerful to acknowledge if you don’t feel psychologically safe in a conversation, or if you see that the other party does not feel safe, and to reinforce your commitment to bolstering it together.

Finally, be aware that psychological safety is bolstered or diminished with each interaction, regardless of whether that’s in a work setting or outside of work. We like to point out that psychological safety is not the same thing as a “safe space.” That is, it’s not limited to a room or moment in time. Psychological safety is the integrity of a psychological contract we have with each other. When we practice the behavioral components of ostentatious listening and equality in conversational turn-taking, when we practice allyship in and out of the workplace, the momentum is undeniable. Culture has a way of being positively contagious; every single person who removes their mask helps others remove theirs. In this way, everyone is a leader.

You can view this on-demand presentation by visiting the Advance Learning Center or by clicking hereThis course offers 0.1 CEUs/1.0 PDH.


  • SWE Blog

    SWE Blog provides up-to-date information and news about the Society and how our members are making a difference every day. You’ll find stories about SWE members, engineering, technology, and other STEM-related topics.