Psychological Safety vs. Psychological Comfort: Understanding the Distinction

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The Big Picture: In the Lean community and beyond, some people mistakenly equate “psychological safety” with being comfortable all the time. This misconception can undermine the true essence of psychological safety in the workplace.

What Psychological Safety Really Means

Psychological safety is not about constant comfort or shielding managers from discomfort. Synthesizing a few definitions of psychological safety, I say it's a person's belief, feeling, or perception that it's safe enough to speak candidly about things including:

  • Mistakes
  • Problems
  • Ideas
  • Differing views

without fearing marginalization or punishment.

Cultivating Psychological Safety

Managers, by virtue of their position, often feel safer to speak freely. However, they must cultivate this environment for their teams, fostering inclusion, respect, and openness.

Creating psychological safety involves actions and behaviors such as:

  • Inviting input from all team members
  • Encouraging candid discussions
  • Rewarding open communication
  • Normalizing the act of speaking up without fear of being challenged or punished

It's not inherently disrespectful for an employee to disagree with their manager. Managers who are driven by power and formal authority might, sadly, find any disagreement to be disrespectful. But organizations with that style of leader aren't going to be successful.

In a culture of psychological safety, everybody has the ability to speak up and feels safe enough doing so. Nobody has the freedom from being challenged. We do better and succeed as a team and a company.

Impact on Different Organizational Levels

How much Psychological Safety does a middle manager feel? That's primarily based on how their leader treats them. A VP's sense of Psychological Safety depends on how the C-suite treats them.

And we can't assume that everybody in the C-suite feels a sense of Psychological Safety — they can feel it if the CEO and the Board are behaving in ways that cultivate it.

Culture tends to roll downhill from the CEO, with local variation depending on how particular leaders are behaving.

  • Middle Managers: Their sense of psychological safety depends largely on how they are treated by their leaders.
  • VPs and Executives: Their safety is influenced by the behavior of the C-suite.
  • C-suite Executives: Even they require a psychologically safe environment, fostered by the CEO and the Board.

Cultural Dynamics

Culture is a top-down phenomenon, significantly shaped by the CEO's actions and behaviors.

Local variations exist, but the overarching culture influences how psychological safety is perceived and practiced across the organization.

Your Role in Psychological Safety

  • It's not your responsibility to make your manager feel psychologically safe.
  • It's certainly not your role to help your manager feel comfortable by keeping quiet.
  • Leaders must create an environment where everyone, regardless of their position, feels safe to speak up and contribute to continuous improvement.

Why This Matters

  • Innovation and Improvement: When employees feel safe to speak up, it leads to more innovation and continuous improvement. Fear of punishment stifles creativity and hinders problem-solving.
  • Employee Engagement: A culture of psychological safety increases employee engagement and retention. Employees are more likely to stay with an organization where they feel valued and heard.
  • Better Decision-Making: Open communication ensures that diverse perspectives are considered, leading to better decision-making.
  • Organizational Resilience: Companies that learn from mistakes are more resilient and adaptable in the face of challenges.

And… by focusing on creating a culture where mistakes are seen as learning opportunities rather than failures, organizations can foster innovation and continuous improvement. For more insights on cultivating a culture of learning from mistakes, check out my book, The Mistakes That Make Us.


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Check out my latest book, The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation:

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.

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