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Psychological Safety is the Vibe

UW Green Bay Phoenix Swim & Dive cheer before a meet.

I’ve had some experience in picking a team. I swam in high school and was skilled enough to be recruited by several college teams. A lot goes into picking a college for the average student, including academic rigor, price, location, size, majors. For an athlete, add on all things athletics - division, coaches, workouts, competition, athletic department and team funding, and team cohesion.

Flash forward 5 years and I’m again picking my team. When searching for graduate programs, I looked for a program with my field of study, professors who are researching what I’m interested in, funding, location, and graduate students who were not just colleagues, but friends.

In both these instances, I didn’t pick the highest paying program, or the program with the highest prestige. I didn’t pick based on tangible items - I picked what I could only describe as “the vibe.” In other words, I picked my top choice by the people and the culture. I wanted to be surrounded by a group of people who felt like home - welcoming, accepting, encouraging me to be myself and bring all my quirks to the table. I wanted psychological safety.

Psychological safety has gained some traction in the past few years, and for good reason. Psychological safety is:

  • The belief that you won’t be punished by the group for making a mistake

  • The ability to take risks without feeling insecure or embarrassed

  • The comfort to speak and share ideas without fear of criticism

A few years ago, Google ran a huge study on what makes the best team. The study befuddled the researchers - it wasn’t the smartest people, nor the people with the most experience, nor the “perfect” mix of personalities and skills. Lo and behold, psychological safety was the key. Teams where individuals could share ideas freely and take risks without the fear of criticism looming over them performed the best. Why? Because group norms were created that allowed individuals to be creative and bring all their ideas to the table - thus, more ideas were generated, shared, and discussed. It wasn’t about the efficiency of the time, but rather, the social aspect of the team. The teams that performed the best weren’t only respectful of each other, they were friendly and social with each other. They had a climate of psychological safety.

As a thought-leader in your organization, psychological safety is a vibe you want to create. It has been linked to not only higher performance (Newman et al., 2017), but higher employee engagement (Ge, 2020), job satisfaction (