Psychological Safety Meets Toxic Positivity

Way back in 1990, psychological safety was defined by William Kahn as, “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career.” Near the beginning of the 21st century (and to the present), Amy Edmondson helped bring psychological safety into the forefront of leadership and organization development conversations around the world. Her research and body of works ties together the relationship between teams that exhibit high performance with teams that have high psychological safety. Most recently, in 2020, Dr. Timothy Clark published a book entitled The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety where he puts forth a framework of “safety phases” and defines psychological safety as “a condition in which human beings feel (1) included, (2) safe to learn, (3) safe to contribute, and (4) safe to challenge the status quo – all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way.”

How I see it is to have psychological safety is to be free. It is a state of mind where one can be themselves; their true self, their most innovative self, their absolute best, or even their absolute worst. And that’s okay, because we all have bad days. We’re not always at our best. The key difference is that in a psychologically safe environment, we aren’t ridiculed when we aren’t at our very best, where in non-safe environments, people are ridiculed for their bad days, and only praised when they are at their very best. Dr. Clark suggests that a psychologically safe environment is one that encourages intellectual friction, not interpersonal friction.

When only high-performance is praised, morale suffers and fear cultures thrive. Although this may seem counter-intuitive, let me explain. If we know that only our best ideas will receive praise, we will hesitate to put forth ideas that we don’t deem to be our very best. Add to that the idea that individuals are most often our own biggest critic, and suddenly, nobody is willing to put forth their ideas because (mentally) they’ve deemed them not to be their very best. And taking this a step further, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the impact of power dynamics, privilege, dominant/non-dominant cultural, etc. For some, it is very easy to speak up and have their ‘great ideas’ heard. These people usually feel safe, not because of a healthy, psychologically safe environment, but because of privilege and entitlement. The goal is to create a space where all voices are heard, thus all ideas are considered, not just the voices and ideas of the most privileged people in the room.

Of course, I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t praise high performers or peoples’ very best ideas, I’m suggesting it is dangerous to only recognize success, and not praise effort. Sure, effort may not “win the proverbial race” but when a world-class athlete doesn’t win the gold, can we not still be inspired by their performance? Can we not learn something from their not-quite-gold-medal-worthy performance? Can we not study mistakes that were made and see them not as mistakes, but rather opportunities to learn and improve?

So often, companies look to focus (only) on the positive. They ignore failures or sweep them under the rug and move on. What they do not realize is that this positive-focused culture, this blind optimism, may be damaging the morale of individuals and teams, resulting in a negative impact on organizational health. When we focus solely on the positive, we may inadvertently suppress minority opinions and the voice of dissent.

Healthy organizations tend to focus on a culture of learning. One where great ideas and great effort are praised. One where ‘bad ideas’ or ‘mistakes’ don’t really exist, because each of the aforementioned is nothing more than an opportunity to learn. It is from our mistakes that lessons are born, and it is from lessons that we obtain the knowledge we need in order to succeed. Therefore, I recommend organizations strive to build their culture around learning and psychologically safety. Create a space where people and teams feel safe enough to share their ideas, even the bad ones, so that they can learn from each other and grow.

Think back on the last meeting you had. Based upon leadership in the room and power dynamics, what behaviors did you see in play? We’re people being drawn out and encouraged to participate and share or were people and ideas being shut down and silenced? Were leaders inspiring confidence or inducing fear? Did you feel encouraged or discouraged? What about your team mates? How do you think they felt in the room?

About Mat Beecher

I enjoy leadership, conflict resolution, organizational health, talent management, adult learning theory, and computer programming. I hold a Master's degree in International Negotiation and Dispute Resolution with a focus on Organizational Leadership. I currently work for an eLearning company and recruit IT instructors. I love Articulate Storyline, Captivate, Javascript, Python, HTML, CSS, and PowerPoint, and use them to design interactive learning modules. In my free time, I learn online, blog, develop content, disc golf, camp, and travel.
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