Team Psychological Safety

The construct of team psychological safety was introduced by Edmondson (1999) when she developed the scale for team psychological safety. The most cited definition of psychological safety probably comes from Edmondson’s (1999) article where she briefly defined psychological safety as being “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking” (p. 354). Originating from the field of organizational change, psychological safety was first introduced by Schein and Bennis in 1965 (as cited by Edmondson, 1999). Psychological safety was originally composed as an individual construct designed to measure if individuals were secure as well as capable of changing (Edmondson, 1999). Schein (2010) presented a version of this model titled The Stages of Learning/Change which involved three main stages:

  • Stage 1 Unfreezing: Creating the Motivation to Change.
  • Stage 2 Learning New Concepts, New Meanings for Old Concepts, and New Standards for Judgment.
  • Stage 3 Internalizing New Concepts, Meanings, and Standards (p. 300).

During the unfreezing stage, Schein (2010) identified three subcomponents: “disconfirmation, creation of survival anxiety or guilt, [and the] creation of psychological safety to overcome learning anxiety” (p. 300). As a new idea is introduced, or a change is initiated, an individual initially feels a sense of discomfort in that this new idea or change is counter to the individual’s current cognitive representation or mind set. The individual may then feel a sense of anxiety due to this difference. In order to overcome this anxiety, the individual needs to create a cognitive sense that she is capable of overcoming this discomfort, the idea of psychological safety. Schein (2010) described this as: “The learner must come to feel that the new way of being is possible and achievable, and that the learning process itself will not be too anxiety provoking or demeaning” (p. 302).  

Psychological safety is related to effective decision making processes in that effective decision making requires one to question and consider alternative choices before making a final decision. By allowing others to question possible decisions, the decision makers must be willing to be challenged and to defend their position for the betterment of the end result. If those participating in the decision making process do not feel comfortable being challenged, or challenging others, then this lack of a psychological safe environment can be  counter-productive, leading to poor decisions. This connection between decision making and psychological safety is highlighted by Janis and Mann’s (1977) statement:

The stability of a decision depends to a considerable degree upon the amount and intensity of negative feedback that the decision maker encounters when he carries out his chosen course. But stability also depends upon the decision maker’s capacity to tolerate negative feedback, which depends partly on how completely and accurately he has worked out the decisional balance sheet during the preceding stages of arriving at the decision.

(Janis & Mann, 1977, p. 178)

Psycholigcal Safety Definitions

In her seminal work on psychological safety, from an organizational learning focus, Edmondson (1999) developed a scale to measure team psychological safety. When individual team members have a sense of psychological safety, the team as a whole represents a climate or a culture that practices psychological safety behaviors among one another. Edmondson (1999) further defined team psychological safety to represent “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up” (p. 354). Psychological safety has evolved from the change and organization learning fields of study to reach across many disciplines. From this reach, both at the individual level and at the team level, numerous definitions of psychological safety have been presented. The table below provides a summary of the various definitions for psychological safety from the literature.

SourcePsychological Safety Definitions
Bradley et al. (2012); Edmondson (1999)A shared belief held by teammates that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.
Higgins et al. (2012); Edmondson (1999)The comfort of teachers in speaking up and asking questions which are key organizational dynamics within which collective learning takes place.
Mu & Gnyawali (2003); Edmondson (1999)Beliefs held by group members that the group environment is safe for bringing diverse viewpoints.
Pearsall & Ellis (2011); Edmondson (1999)A sense of confidence that other team members will not ‘embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up’ and a ‘shared belief by team members that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking’.
Pearsall & Ellis (2011)Associated with the degree of participation of group members and their feelings toward the group.
Raes et al. (2013); Edmondson (1999)A shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. The term is meant to suggest neither a careless sense of permissiveness nor an unrelenting positive affect but rather a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up.
Schaubroeck et al. (2011)Psychological teams are characterized by interpersonal trust, respect for the competence of all team members, and care and concern about members as people.
Schaubroeck et al. (2011); Edmondson (1999)A shared belief that the team is a safe environment for interpersonal risk taking.
Schepers et al. (2008); Kahn (1990)The feeling of a student that he is able to show and employ himself in his tasks without fear of negative consequences to self-image, social status or school career.
Van der Rijt et al. (2012); Kahn (1990)The employee’s sense of being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences to self-image, status, or career.
Van Gennip et al. (2010); Edmondson (1999)A shared belief that it is safe to take interpersonal risks in a group of people.
Xu & Yang (2010); Edmondson (1999)The group members’ beliefs that members of their group are open and receptive to different perspectives and that the other members would not reject or punish someone for bringing a different viewpoint.

When discussing psychological safety, two distinctions need to be made. Although the conceptual definition of psychological safety is similar to the conceptual definitions of cohesion and trust, each concept is distinctively different from one another.  Edmondson (1999) differentiated between cohesion and psychological safety by making the point that cohesion can lead to a lack of a willingness to disagree with others, as in the case of groupthink that had been previously discussed. Psychological safety, on the other hand, promotes a willingness to disagree by providing a culture in which members will not be embarrassed, rejected, or punished for disagreeing (Edmondson, 1999). Likewise, interpersonal trust involves an expectation that others’ actions will be favorable to one’s interests (Edmondson, 1999). Psychological safety requires interpersonal trust, as well as mutual respect among team members where members feel comfortable being themselves (Edmondson, 1999), as opposed to judging the expectations of others. Schepers et al. (2008) also identified this distinction with interpersonal trust by indicating that psychological safety also involves “a sense of being valued and comfortable in that setting” (p. 758). Xu and Yang (2010) added that it is the aggregate of trust and mutual respect that constitutes psychological safety.


Bradley, B. H., Postlethwaite, B. E., Klotz, A. C., Hamdani, Maria R., & Brown, K. G. (2012). Reaping the benefits of task conflict in teams: The critical role of team psychological safety climate. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97(1), 151-158.

Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44, 350-383. 

Higgins, M., Ishimaru, A., Holcombe, R., & Fowler, A. (2012). Examining organizational learning in schools: The role of psychological safety, experimentation, and leadership that reinforces learning. Journal of Educational Change, 13, 67-94.

Janis, I. L., & Mann, L. (1977). Decision making: A psychological analysis of conflict, choice, and commitment. Free Press. 

Mu, S., & Gnyawali, D. R. (2003). Developing synergistic knowlege in student groups. The Journal of Higher Education, 74(6), 689-711.

Pearsall, M. J., & Ellis, A. P. J. (2011). Thick as thieves: The effects of ethical orientation and psychological safety on unethical team behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(2), 401-411.

Raes, E., Decuyper, S., Lismont, B., Van den bossche, P., Kyndt, E., Demeyere, S., & Dochy, F. (2013). Facilitating team learning through transformational leadership. Instructional Science, 41, 287-305.

Schaubroeck, J., Lam, S. S. K., & Peng, A. C. (2011). Cognition-based and affect-based trust as mediators of leader behavior influences on team performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(4), 863-971.

Schein, E. H. (2010). Organizational culture and leadership (4th ed.). John Wiley & Sons. 

Schepers, J., de Jong, A., Wetzels, M., & de Ruyter, K. (2008). Psychological safety and social support in groupware adoption: A multi-level assessment in education. Computers & Education, 51, 757-775.

van der Rijt, J., van de Wiel, M. W. J., Van den Bossche, P., Segers, M. S. R., & Gijselaers, W. H. (2012). Contextual antecedents of informal feedback in the workplace. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 23(2), 233–257. 

van Gennip, N. A. E., Segers, M. S. R., & Tillema, H. H. (2010). Peer assessment as a collaborative learning activity: The role of interpersonal variables and conceptions. Learning and Instruction, 20, 280-290.

Xu, Y., & Yang, Y. (2010). Student learning in business simulation: An empirical investigation. Journal of Education for Business, 85, 223-228.

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