3 tips for increasing psychological safety in the workplace

HR experts and organizational psychologists share their insights

Psychological safety relates to the individual's state of mind and how we engage in a community.  

In the workplace, it primarily affects how our mental state influences our work approach and task execution. 

One of the leading advocates and experts on psychological safety, Amy Edmonson, defines it as "a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking." 

Psychological safety in the workplace is fostered when colleagues participate in and contribute to the community while, in turn, the community enables people (colleagues as well as managers) to feel more comfortable showing their vulnerable sides. 

In short, the more people feel included in the community, the more they engage in it. The safer they feel within the community, the more likely they are to: 

  • Seek and provide feedback 
  • Collaborate across expertise areas 
  • Share doubts and incomplete ideas
  • Propose new ways to accomplish tasks 
  • Be willing to embrace new approaches 

Overall, high psychological safety lays the foundation for increased job satisfaction and engagement, more collaboration, greater innovation, and higher productivity. 

This all sounds grand, but how do you actually work with psychological safety on a daily basis? And what is the purpose? 


Overall, high psychological safety lays the foundation for increased job satisfaction and engagement, more collaboration, greater innovation, and higher productivity. 

This all sounds grand, but how do you actually work with psychological safety on a daily basis? And what is the purpose? 

To answer these questions, we gathered some of our wisest HR experts in a room, with organizational psychologists Julie Dyngeland Hessen and Andreas Barfoed-Høj leading the discussion and brainstorming session. 

They generated many ideas, too numerous to share here, and several of them can already be found through a simple search on the internet. 

Instead, we have condensed the most important advice into three actionable steps that you can implement right away. They are: 


  1. Embrace curiosity 
  1. Work constructively with mistakes 
  1. Ensure the outlines of the workplace culture are clearly defined and understood  

Psychological Safety Harnesses the Value of Vulnerability

Efforts to promote psychological safety are typically categorized into two areas: 


  1. Personal initiatives and behaviors that managers or colleagues should be aware of

  2. Structural initiatives that organizations and HR departments can implement 


Improvements in both categories overlap to some extent, but the perspective and starting point are often different. 

However, both categories share the same goal: to foster a work environment and atmosphere where it is all right to display vulnerability, doubt, and uncertainty with the aim of improving work and the psychosocial work environment. 

The organization's overall benefit is employees who actively contribute to optimizing processes, workflow, and productivity. The employees' overall benefit is a workplace that allows for individuality, focuses on continuous improvement and learning rather than a fear of needing to know and be capable of everything in advance. 

However, one thing needs to be clear:

Leadership bears greater responsibility here than employees. For individual employees, especially newcomers, there is risk associated with displaying vulnerability or uncertainty. 

If psychological safety does not already exist in the workplace, employees who display vulnerability suddenly have a lot at stake. There will always be an unequal power dynamic between employee and manager, making it challenging for employees to display vulnerability. In the worst-case scenario, the employee risks being fired, as vulnerability can be misinterpreted as a sign of weakness. 

Therefore, it is necessary for managers to take the lead and establish the outlines for the work environment. Only then can employees confidently follow suit. 

Psychological safety is rarely the end goal itself. It is a means to achieve other, grander goals such as optimization, progress, innovation, and higher productivity. 

Everyone grows within their area of responsibility, an area of responsibility evolves with the surroundings, and an organization's goals evolve over time. The purpose of psychological safety also shifts accordingly. 

But one aspect never changes: in a workplace with high psychological safety, there is a shared understanding that development and continuous improvement fuel progress. 

Below, we have divided the three tips into specific suggestions for managers and employees, acknowledging the power imbalance and the different roles that can be played in working with psychological safety in the workplace. 


Embrace Curiosity

Maintain an open mindset and try to address doubts and questions about work (specific projects or general workflows) with the understanding that there is always room for improvement. 

This applies for when you have questions yourself and when others ask questions of you. 

Do not be afraid to share your ideas with colleagues in a respectful manner, and when colleagues share their ideas with you, be open and attentive. Listen to their ideas with the understanding that both parties have the opportunity to learn. 

Does this always lead to revolutionary innovation and improved workflows? 

No, not always. Countless bad ideas are shared and discussed worldwide every day. Many of them even materialize. 

However, if there is no room for sharing bad ideas in the workplace, it becomes challenging for good ideas to flourish. A work environment that encourages sharing ideas, both good and bad, also helps identify and clarify bad ideas before too much time is spent on them. 

The goal, though, isn’t to question everything. If a project or organization is truly in such a bad state that everything can be questioned, then there are other, more important problems to prioritize over psychological safety. 

A pinch of common sense goes a long way. 

Yes, one major advantage of high psychological safety is collaboration and cross-departmental support. This is almost always a good thing. 

But that doesn't mean that people with different areas of expertise should constantly interfere with each other's work. Although there should be room for everyone to be heard, it is also important to remember that each voice has its area(s) of expertise. For example, accounting rarely knows more about marketing than the marketing department, and vice versa. 

Welcoming curiosity means opening the door to both good and not-so-good ideas. But the purpose is the interaction encouraged and the decisions made based on that, which ultimately nurtures better work. 

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How do you welcome curiosity as a manager?

Make it a goal to create a culture where everyone is curious and actively seeks improvement in their own work as well as in the surrounding workplace structures. 

You can start small. 

Start with yourself by committing to being more curious in your next meeting. Alternatively, involve your employees. Hold a team meeting where people share their insights on how they listen to each other, work across departments, what they already do well, what they can improve, etc. 

Culture emerges in the space between initiatives, dialogues, projects, conversations, etc., in daily work as well as planned events. 

But it's not enough to just encourage improvement and self-reflection. 

It should be an invitation. 

Because if it's only encouragement, it's unlikely to bring forth new voices that are not already being heard. 

Christian Ørsted, Danish leadership expert, sums it up thusly, "If we want to increase the degree of psychological safety, the task is also to invite into the conversation those who do not naturally come forward. Those who are unsure of how we receive what they offer. 

Therefore, as a manager, it is important to create an atmosphere that actively invites people to contribute. It can also be helpful to periodically ask yourself, "When do I think others experience me as curious and engaging?" 


How do you welcome curiosity as an employee?

Don't silence yourself. 

Of course, you should be respectful towards your colleagues and their work, but if you feel the opportunity to share an idea or ask a question, and you believe it is relevant, go ahead and do it. 

Make it clear that you do it because you are also invested in the topic. 

Avoid doing it in a way that highlights yourself as more knowledgeable in the area. That can, though, happen unintentionally. The goal is to create dialogue. A good starting point is often your own curiosity. Ask because you want to learn something. 

Ask; don’t assert. Learn; don’t lecture. The goal is to grow more knowledgeable—for everyone involved. Only when that happens does it make sense to either move forward or let things be as they are. 

If you follow the golden rule (treat others as you want to be treated), you're on the right track. 

Working Constructively with Mistakes

There has yet to be born a person without faults and who doesn’t make mistakes. 

But, by definition, mistakes are unwanted. It is therefore completely normal to be disappointed by mistakes—both your own and those of other people. 

Mistakes are something everyone wants to avoid. But at the same time, mistakes are also inevitable. And if you are constantly afraid of making mistakes in your daily work, it actually increases the likelihood of making mistakes. 

In work environments with high psychological safety, this is a dilemma that everyone is aware of. 

The goal is not to be perfect as an employee, as a manager, or as an organization. Because mistakes happen. Sometimes it is even impossible to succeed before you’ve made a couple mistakes along the way. Perhaps the most well-known example is the story of how the light bulb was invented. 

The important thing is how you work with and move forward despite mistakes—as an individual and as a colleague/manager. 

You have discovered a mistake. How do you best move forward from there, and what can you learn from the mistake? What can you bring with you? 


How do you work constructively with mistakes as a manager?

Focus on the future. 

Your primary task as a manager is to ensure that any consequences (both psychological and task-related) are limited and that you can proceed with the task in the best possible way. 

If the mistake is made by an individual employee or a specific team, do your best to get them back on track so that the task can still be accomplished effectively. 

Sometimes the mistake reveals more fundamental uncertainties in workflows or specific projects. Are there things that everyone can learn from here? If so, the mistake may be a lesson that might save you from many other mistakes in the future. 

However, if the mistake is repeated, it may be time to delve into the underlying causes. 

On the other hand, few things are more toxic to psychological safety than when managers react negatively to employees' mistakes. It makes people feel insecure across the organization, regardless of whether they had anything to do with the mistake or not. 

Therefore, be extra attentive to how your reaction might be interpreted by employees. 

If possible, share your own experiences with mistakes and make it clear that managers are also fallible. If possible, use the situation (or make it an actual department event) to promote learning and constructive thinking rather than finger-pointing. 


How do you work constructively with mistakes as an employee?

You make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. Mistakes can perhaps be reduced with experience, but there is no cure for mistakes. Even the world's best football player misses penalty kicks, the world's best copywriter makes typos, and the world's best chef makes sauces that curdle. 

The first step is to realize that you are going to make mistakes. Although it's difficult, always try to learn from your mistakes and do your best to avoid repeating them. 

And if you feel safe in your workplace, with your colleagues and/or your boss (and only if that is actually the case), feel free to share the mistake with others. 

By doing so, you gain more control over the situation, put the mistake in perspective, and help your colleagues the next time they make a mistake. You show them that it's okay to share mistakes with the community, because mistakes are just as natural a part of the work as so many other things. You might also help them avoid making the same mistake. 

The next step is to realize that your colleagues (including your boss) also make mistakes, and sometimes their mistakes have consequences for you and your workday. 

How you react here is important for both you and the colleague involved. 

Offer your help. And if you can't help, offer your perspective. As mentioned before, share a story about when you made a mistake or explain how you usually handle mistakes in the organization/department. If possible, help the person move forward with the task despite the mistake. 


Ensure the outlines of the workplace culture are clearly defined and understood

In short, make sure everyone knows the rules of the game, as it were. 

It is always the responsibility of the management to take the lead and establish clear guidelines for the company and workplace culture. The organization's values and attitudes should ideally be specified and clear to individual employees as well as managers and departments. Which is to say, everyone should know what kind of place the workplace is, what’s the atmosphere that’s strived for, which social rules govern the place, etc.  

On their own, guidelines cannot a company culture create, and psychological safety does not sprout in a vacuum. However, you can be the driving force behind the initiatives and the common work practices that encourage and lay the foundation for a psychologically safe workplace. 

If the boundaries are unclear, it quickly affects psychological safety, because it asks employees to show some degree of vulnerability: 


  • Ask questions that may sound stupid 
  • Actively work with mistakes 
  • Share unfinished ideas 
  • Be open to improvements 


And that is new to many people. 

Especially in a professional context—even the word "professional" is colloquially synonymous with "flawless" and "having everything under control." 

High psychological safety depends on everyone in the community being okay with not having everything under control all the time and working under the premise that there are always things we can all improve—because that is actually a significant part of the work in all organizations: 

Not having everything under control but working to gain more control. 

If the cultural framework of the workplace is not defined by top management and clearly communicated to managers and employees, it puts all the responsibility on the individual—which is a lot to ask of employees when demonstrating vulnerability can, in extreme cases, lead to termination. 



How do you ensure the outlines of the workplace culture are clearly defined and understoodwas a manager?

If the organization has clear guidelines in place, your primary task is to pass them on to employees in your department and personally demonstrate the underlying qualities in your daily actions as best as possible. 

In other words, lead by example. Few things have a better effect, especially when it comes to psychological safety. 

Just as guidelines alone cannot create a company culture, you cannot single-handedly create psychological safety for your employees. However, you can be the driving force behind the initiatives and common work practices that encourage and establish the conditions for a psychologically safe workplace. 

If, on the other hand, the organization has no clear guidelines in place, you have an important role to play in ensuring that clear guidelines are established. 

One place to start, if you're not already doing it, is to set up feedback meetings where your team(s) practices giving and receiving feedback. 

A similar culture-building exercise could be to examine whether you live up to the organization's declared values in your daily work. For example, one such value could be openness. Ask yourselves, "When do we demonstrate openness at work?" It could be when sharing unfinished ideas or being open to new ways of approaching a task. 

This helps both in setting guidelines and making them clear to employees, and it contributes to creating the culture you desire. 

How do you ensure the outlines of the workplace culture are clearly defined and understood as an employeer?

The short explanation is that this is not your responsibility—not on your own, at least. 

You can raise the topic with colleagues and/or your manager(s), and you can contribute to fostering the work culture you desire. 

But creating a psychologically safe workplace requires everyone on board—and it is difficult for any individual employee to steer the ship right if management has yet to set a course. 

When that course is set, hough, you have a significant role to play. 

You have just as much influence on the workplace community as your colleagues and managers. Psychological safety starts and ends with the way you interact with each other on a daily basis. Community only exists if you create one, and it takes whatever form you all create for it. 


A willingness to be vulnerable together creates trust

If you tapped us on the shoulder and asked what it takes to achieve high psychological safety in the workplace, and then bid us summarize it in one sentence, we would say: 

A shared openness to vulnerability as a prerequisite for genuine trust. 

Having trust in colleagues, managers, and employees allows us to: 


  • Approach each other with an open mind 
  • Seek and provide active feedback 
  • Dare to collaborate across areas of expertise 
  • Be less afraid of making mistakes 
  • Work constructively with mistakes when they happen 
  • Participate in and contribute to the community 


In short, it is trust that enables us to work well together. 

Without it, departments and organizations become individuals instead of teams, creating division instead of collaboration, competition instead of shared success, misunderstandings instead of improvements, and mistrust instead of progress. 

This is a recipe for failure, regardless of the type of organization you're talking about. 

Modern companies depend heavily on interdisciplinary collaboration between employees and approaches that make the most of everyone's specialized expertise. 

In addition, today's employees also demand more freedom in their work, better opportunities to contribute their expertise, and the ability to balance their personal and professional lives. 

An insecure workplace where you cannot rely on your colleagues, where no one cares whether things could be done better, and where you're constantly afraid of making mistakes is not a workplace that retains good employees. 

That is why psychological safety has become a topic that everyone talks about. 

Psychological safety is a vital prerequisite for creating the internal trust that precedes strong collaboration between colleagues and managers. It is a starting point for creating an atmosphere where everyone can be heard but where it is also okay to make mistakes and show that there is always something new to learn. 

After all, the goal is improvement—not change for the sake of change. 


So, what’s the next step?

It's hard to argue against high psychological safety. It is something everyone wants. The benefits are clear and self-explanatory. 

But it can be difficult to figure out how, as an individual employee or manager, you actually make a difference in your daily life. And also how to do it as an organization or governing board. 

At the organizational level, the first step is always knowledge-gathering. Establish a measurement agenda that initially seeks to assess the current level of psychological safety in the organization, and then figure out what to do about it and how. 

But there are still things you can do as an individual. For example, you could start by asking yourself Amy Edmondson's 7 questions: 



  1. If you make a mistake, do colleagues/managers look down on you?

  2. Do you have the opportunity to discuss problems and other "heavy" topics?

  3. Are people in your team(s) sometimes rejected because they are different?

  4. Do you feel safe enough in your job to take risks?

  5. Is it difficult to ask colleagues for help?

  6. Do you have colleagues who actively work against you?

  7. Are your unique skills and talents appreciated and utilized? 



We hope that the above has helped you on your journey towards better psychological safety in the office, the workplace, or wherever you seek it. If you or your manager have questions about getting started at the organizational level (or investigating the current state), you are always welcome to reach out to us. 

You can always reach us via our contact form. But you are also welcome to directly contact our organizational psychologists, Julie Dyngeland Hessen and Andreas Barfoed-Høj, on their LinkedIn profiles. 

Andreas Barfoed-Høj

Business Psychologist (cand.psych)


Xact By Rambøll

M +45 51 61 20 41