HR experts’ views on psychological safety

Get wiser on psychological safety and learn from the HR experts.

What’s the worst job you’ve ever had? 

Where you just couldn't be bothered to get out of bed on a Monday morning and drag yourself to work. Where every day of the week was spent counting down to the weekend, and you longed for the day when you no longer had to bother with… 

The boss? The tasks? The colleagues? The working environment? The commuting? 

There are many factors that influence our job satisfaction and the way we view our job. Most often it is a mixed bag, where you may get on with your boss and colleagues but find the work tasks really difficult and annoying. Or the opposite, where you love your actual work, but there are one or two colleagues who spoil it all. 

But one factor that is absolutely central to our job satisfaction and which is mentioned by ‘supervisors’ in almost all cases, is psychological safety. 

Psychological safety goes hand in hand with the work culture

The level of psychological security is in many ways the cornerstone of a healthy workplace culture where, to quote Aarhus University: 

”[…] people are comfortable expressing themselves and being themselves. In a workplace characterized by psychological safety, sharing doubts, disagreements, etc. does not have negative consequences. Instead, it is used constructively in the work/collaboration, and thus contributes positively to learning, performance, commitment, and wellbeing – a good psychological working environment.” – Aarhus University 


Therefore, employees in both private and public organizations with a high level of psychological safety are often better at:

  • seeking help from colleagues/managers when necessary 
  • asking questions 
  • learning new things 
  • providing and receiving feedback 
  • pointing out any shortcomings or poor workflows 
  • proposing new ideas 
  • sharing ideas with colleagues/managers 

Ultimately, this leads to stronger communities, greater work-drive, higher employee engagement, less sick leave, higher job satisfaction, more innovation, silo breakdown and, not least, better results and service/end product. 

If you want to read more about what measures you can take to improve the psychological safety of your organization, feel free to consult our in-depth Article, ’3 tips for greater psychological safety at work’, where some of our most experienced HR experts and organizational psychologists give their best advice on how best to work with psychological safety. 


Psychological safety in a nutshell

Psychological safety and the theory around it has to do with the human mind. That is, how we feel and how our state of mind affects our way of working – especially, but not only, how we join the community in the workplace. 

Mutual trust is therefore a core factor for psychological safety at work. 

It’s about doing our best when we feel safe, and even though comparing it to the time people lived in tribal societies is an oversimplification, the effect is very similar: 

  1. When we are safe in the community, we also take a greater part in that community. 
  1. The more we take part in the community, the more everyone in the community benefits. 

This is how psychological safety breeds more psychological safety, and it is this that creates the breeding ground for a better working environment where everyone thrives, the desire to work increases and everyone performs to their best – at an individual and joint level. 

Perhaps not quite as early as back in the Stone age, but still before the turn of the millennium, in 1999, Amy Edmondson, professor at Harvard Business School and one of the world's leading experts on psychological safety, defined psychological safety as ”a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” 

This means that, whether the project is to bring down a mammoth, build Moesgaard Museum or set out an action plan based on the organization’s just completed WPA, psychological safety is the glue that holds the collaboration between colleagues (and sometimes entire departments) together during any successful project. 

When there is a high level of psychological safety at work, there is room for doubt, to ask questions and to share a half-finished idea with colleagues without appearing to be annoying, aggrandizing or


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A prerequisite for sustainable progress

Psychological safety plays an important role in strengthening cooperation between colleagues and managers. At the same time, it provides space for innovation and interchange across work roles, experience levels and departments. It also breeds a work culture where there is always room for optimization of processes, workflows and safety prerequisites. 

For example, author and management consultant Christian Ørsted talks about psychological safety in a management context as follows: 


”Traditionally, management is associated with control and is therefore also based on the idea that management knows best and must therefore control employees and motivate them. This idea works just as long as the premise holds: That management does indeed know best. But this thinking comes unstuck when employees are experienced and professional, and when everyday life is characterized by complex and changeable demands for task solving. When the tasks are complex, the most important thing we have is our ability to collaborate and the psychological safety to talk about the professional dilemmas that need to be resolved across the board.”

Christian Ørsted

Forfatter og ledelsesrådgiver,

Psychological safety is a prerequisite for sustainable progress in the organization, for people to take initiative and for teams to resolve unexpected challenges on their own – because they each feel confident enough to rely on their own knowledge, experience and motivation. 

It is precisely because psychological safety is a concept within the psychosocial working environment that is rooted in people’s feelings and their mental attitude to work, their motivation and commitment, that it has such a far-reaching impact on many aspects of work – visible as well as less visible. 

Both are equally critical to watch out for. 

Psychological safety can be a matter of life or death

Amy Edmondson has an excellent example of one of the less visible aspects, one which is nevertheless of vital importance. Literally, actually. 

The example below is a simplification of Edmondson’s own presentation, which is based on data from her studies in the hospital world. 

Imagine you are critically ill but have been given the choice of 3 different hospitals that could save your life. To help you make the right choice, you will get an overview of the number of reported errors. 

  • Hospital A has 7 reported errors 
  • Hospital B has 2 reported errors 
  • Hospital C has 24 reported errors 

If your life was at stake, which hospital would you choose? 

The logic says, of course, Hospital B. It looks like they're in control. Conversely, Hospital C is a complete failure. 

Or is it? 

The reality, as you may have guessed, is actually the diametrically opposite. The overview says very little about safety at the various hospitals – on the other hand, it says a lot about how willing employees are to report errors and challenges in the workplace. 

The explanation becomes clearer if we reformulate the question a little. 

If your life was at stake, would you choose the hospital where the most or least errors are reported? 

In Hospital C, far more errors are reported than in the other hospitals. This suggests a work and management culture with high psychological safety, where there is room to point out errors and areas that could be improved. 

The result is far more opportunities to correct those errors, correct skewed processes, better collaboration between colleagues and ultimately better treatment of patients. 

You may think that psychological safety is of course not so intimately linked to life and death in all industries. And you would be right, to a certain extent. 

If the organization ignores the psychological safety and psychosocial working environment, it risks at best the organization coming to a standstill and at worst, a slow death. 

High psychological safety also enhances the physical working environment

Think of your own flaws. 

Headache, a bad back, poor fitness, perhaps the onset of stress. Is it always equally clear whether it is due to something physical or something mental? 

A bad back can lead to a stressful life just as a stressful life can lead to a bad back. 

If you as an employee feel confident enough to address potential shortcomings or hazards in your workplace, this increases the chances of the situation vis-a-vis improper workflows, damaged equipment, poor office chairs and lack of training being improved. 

And this applies regardless of whether your employees spend their daily time on a construction site, a container ship, on a mammoth hunt or in an office landscape. 

Psychological safety is not the goal in itself – it is the prerequisite for achieving ambitious results

As knowledge of psychological safety has grown, it has also become a more established part of the agenda in many HR departments. 

This is, of course, a positive development. 

But it is important to remember that in an organizational context, psychological safety is not a goal in itself – it is, and it bears repeating, a prerequisite for sustainable progress. 

That is, the goal can be anything from more innovation and higher productivity to solving the world's climate challenges. In short: outcomes of almost any kind, where employees have to work together and act as a common unit working toward the same goal. 

Psychological safety is fundamental to achieving ambitious results, but it is the achievement of the results that is the goal. 

Changes do not happen overnight

Psychological safety is not comfortable in and of itself. It often involves facing otherwise vulnerable situations, being open-minded in the face of errors (one's own as well as others’) and not being afraid to express doubts. 

However, with a high level of psychological safety in the workplace, employees, managers and organizations are better able to handle, prevent and improve difficult situations. It is easier to translate uncomfortable things or negative circumstances into positive, beneficial progress. 

However, that progress does not happen overnight. 

Psychological safety takes time to build up, because it is both a fundamental part of the work culture that it helps to shape, and at the same time is shaped by the work culture of which it is a part. 

Therefore, you cannot improve psychological safety at work without also focusing on the overall work culture. In many ways, there is a feedback loop between the overall work culture and the feeling of psychological safety, where they constantly influence and are influenced by each other. 

And since there are so many factors that affect both the overall work culture and the feeling of psychological safety, for the same reason as a manager or an organization, you can also work with psychological safety without directly working on psychological safety. 

So let’s finish off by considering how best to work with psychological safety. 


So, how do you work with psychological safety?

There are a myriad of different ways of working with psychological safety, and how you do it best depends on your organization’s structure, work culture and much more. 

Having said that, there are a number of minor actions that help to get things moving. Many of these actions are all things that you, as a manager, can start implementing today. 

Small actions from the management can have a huge impact and spread like ripples in the water. 

For example, as a manager, you introduce a monthly meeting where everyone (including yourself) is encouraged to share challenges at work or other similar things. It shows to employees that such things are part of the culture, that it is safe to share something other than success. 

Other small changes deal with how you as a department or organization handle errors and how you address the more vulnerable issues in your everyday life. 

But we cannot avoid the fact that one of the most important first steps is to examine the situation and survey where the greatest difference can be made – among the employees. 

How do you do it, what should be prioritized and where do you actually start?

You can read much more about this in our article here, where some of our best HR experts and organizational psychologists give their 3 surefire tips on how organizations work with psychological safety and everything relating to it.  

Andreas Barfoed-Høj

Business Psychologist (cand.psych)


Xact By Rambøll

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