Dr. Andrea Hollingsworth
Hollingsworth Consulting

Psychological safety is kind of like obscenity: Hard to define, but you know it when you feel it.

And you definitely know when it’s missing. In psychologically unsafe contexts, you feel afraid. Untrusting. On edge. Unsupported. Unclear. You can’t really jump in, can’t fully get in the game, because nothing is predictable. Things feel emotionally threatening, but in subtle ways you can’t put your finger on. The easiest solution is to check out, contribute the bare minimum, and conserve your energy for other things and other people.

Lately I’ve been following research trends on “quiet quitting” and employee burnout. I’ve read enough to say, with confidence, that a consensus is emerging among the studies:

A key reason folks are disengaged (not just at work, but in all parts of life) is for lack of psychological safety.

But what is psychological safety? From my research and work with clients, I’ve determined that psychological safety has at least ten core elements. Today I’ll share with you the first five. We’ll explore the last five in my next newsletter.

Core Elements of Psychological Safety, Part 1

  1. Consistency: Our brains depend on predictable rhythms to feel safe and secure. This is why parents instinctively rock babies to calm them. Strive for consistency in your schedule, tasks, and communications. Managers should create a baseline of trust by connecting frequently and regularly with team members. And don’t cancel/reschedule unless its unavoidable.
  2. Clarity: According to Gallup, less than 40% of young remote workers have a clear idea of what’s expected of them at work. Vague expectations and convoluted communications bring anxiety, insecurity, and a sense of futility. Managers should strive for simple, straightforward messages about what they want, when they want it, and how important it is.
  3. Boundaries: In a psychologically safe environment, people can say what’s okay and not okay for them without having to worry about fallout. Aim to foster a culture where it’s commonplace to convey your expectations and needs, and to honor others’ in turn. This makes everyone feel safe and comfortable in their job and collegial relationships.
  4. Self-management: Ever been around someone who oozed frustration, hurriedness, insecurity, unacceptance, or another negative emotion? It’s unmooring, to say the least. In psychologically safe environments, people (especially leaders) regulate their own emotions. They’re aware of their biases and triggers. They don’t spew their frenetic energy onto others. And they don’t depend on others to regulate them.
  5. Directness: In a conflict-avoidant culture, you get gaslighting, passive aggression, gossip, and straight-up lying. All of this feels terrible, and it wrecks trust. People don’t know where they stand, and they feel unsafe even attempting to find out. If you’re a leader, insist on directness. Model what it means to speak the plain truth – calmly, candidly, and respectfully.

In environments where these elements are present, people tend to feel good, work hard, collaborate willingly, and contribute happily. Why? Because they aren’t wasting precious energy trying to protect themselves. Instead, they can simply focus on being their best selves and doing their best work.

Two weeks from now, I’ll cover five more core elements. So, stay tuned!

Cultivating a culture of psychological safety requires intentionality. It’s a competency-building journey, to be sure. If you’re interested in learning about ways I can support your organization on that journey, I hope you’ll be in touch.

About Andrea

Dr. Andrea Hollingsworth is Founder and CEO of Hollingsworth Consulting, author of the bestselling book The Compassion Advantage (2024), and one of today’s leading global experts on compassionate leadership. Since 2008, she has been studying, speaking, and writing about the science and spirituality of human emotions and relationships. Her articles have been published more than a dozen times in peer-reviewed journals, and she has taught at prestigious institutions like Princeton, Boston University, and Loyola University Chicago. In addition, Dr. Andrea has delivered talks to audiences at some of the top-ranked universities in the world—including Cambridge University in England and Heidelberg University in Germany.

Dr. Andrea spends most of her time inspiring leaders and teams to use The Compassion Advantage to build supercharged organizations through cultures of care— especially in times of challenge and change. Andrea lives with her family in Minnesota where she cheers hard at her son’s soccer games and relishes every opportunity to visit the north shore of Lake Superior.