Photo by Polina Tankilevitch:
Photo by Polina Tankilevitch:

What is psychological safety?

Safety is the foundational prerequisite to any high performing team. When there is adequate psychological safety in the workplace employee wellness will increase and as a result turnover will reduce. Also, creativity and innovation will drastically increase and with that, the overall productivity and potentially profitability will increase. Most importantly, though, is that you will attract and retain top talent.

Few workplaces manage to understand what it means to provide psychological safety, though. This post aims to provide a 'dummies guide' to providing psychological safety.

The basic levels of psychological safety

Psychological safety, essentially, is providing a safe nest for the vulnerable much like an egg is kept safe in a nest with the mother bird protectively ensuring no predators get close while the egg hatches and the chicks strengthen their wings for their first flight.

So what does this practically look like in the workplace? There are three basic levels to psychological safety - material safety, emotional safety, and the safety to grow and transform.

Level 1 - Material needs are met

Foundational and a pre-requisite for anything else is providing the confidence that you, as employer, will reliably meet the employee's basic needs. That is, they don't have to worry that they won't get paid, or that they will get fired for some unexpected mood or event out of their control. Basic needs also include the ability to provide everything they need to do their job effectively.

To reach this level a mutual beneficial contract needs to be agreed on that both parties consent to. Most work contracts favor the employer and there's no or very little room for negotiation. To provide psychological safety the contract needs to be co-created by both parties that is equally fair to both sides.

Level 2 - Individual freedom and equality needs are met

The second layer of psychological safety relates to the freedom to express an individual's thoughts, beliefs, and dreams. This includes freedom of speech as well as fair and equal treatment. That is, no favoritism, nepotism, racism, sexism, or any other -ism that favors one individual over another based on anything other than meritocracy.

To reach this level roles, responsibilities, expectations, and boundaries need to be very clearly and explicitly defined. There also need to be a mechanism that includes everyone equally in decision making.

Level 3 - Support to reach personal and professional goals

The final layer of psychological safety relates to future potential of an individual and the ongoing support to help the individual grow and become more. It's no longer just about the employer and what the employer wants from the employee, but a mutual beneficial relationship where both contribute and take in an equal value exchange.


Psychological safety is about allowing authenticity and autonomy. The underlying message is that you are worthy of your individual dreams and desires and are equally important than me. For psychological safety to exist you need to be able to trust each other, and for trust to happen you need to reliably demonstrate that you take my best interests into account as much as you take yours into account.