Dr. Andrea Hollingsworth
Hollingsworth Consulting

You Know it When You Feel It.

Psychological safety is kind of like obscenity: Hard to define with total precision, 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. There’s a subtle feeling of unpredictability and emotional threat. You hold back your ideas, questions, and emotions because you’re pretty sure there would be negative consequences if you expressed them. The easiest solution is to keep your head mostly in your shell, contribute minimally, and conserve your energy.

Lately I’ve been following research trends on “quiet quitting” and employee burnout. I’ve gathered enough to say, with confidence, that a key reason folks are disengaged (not just at work, but in all parts of life) is for lack of psychological safety.

In psychologically safe workplaces, people are engaged and motivated. They know their personhood, thoughts, and queries are valued, so they lean in and speak up. Diverse perspectives are welcomed, which leads to better decisions and problem-solving. People continuously learn and improve because it’s okay to make mistakes and learn from them. There’s a widespread “felt permission for candor,” as leading psychological safety researcher Amy Edmondson put it. This felt freedom to take risks, speak up, and admit mistakes is, according to Edmondson, the heartbeat psychological safety in organizations.

From my own research and work with clients over the years, I’ve determined that psychological safety has at least ten core elements. I’ve sketched them below.

Ten Core Elements of Psychological Safety

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.

6. Compassion
Psychological safety involves knowing you are seen, understood, and supported – especially when you’re stressed or struggling. In compassionate cultures, people can count on empathy and advocacy when they’re suffering. In such an environment, everyone senses that, “this is a place where it’s okay to be fully human.”

7. Equity
It takes work to cultivate equity — that is, fair, balanced, and consistent expectations, opportunities, and treatment for all. Humans very easily slip into in-group/out-group relational dynamics. “Parochial empathy” — that is, showing favor and kindness toward those most like you, to the exclusion of others — breeds suspicion and hinders belonging. Psychologically safe environments require ongoing correction of inequitable relationships, systems, and structures.

8. Feedback
It can create a lot of insecurity when you don’t know how your work is being received. On the other hand, you feel confident when you can see the results of your efforts. If you’re a manager, regularly show team members what they’ve accomplished. Recognize them and thank them for it! And when work falls short of expectations, or if someone makes a mistake, then communicate that with candor, too. As Amy Edmondson urges, be curious rather than blaming. Model a learning mindset by asking them what they learned, and what the next steps might be. Then assure them that you’re their supporter and ally as they seek continual improvement.

9. Resonance
Interpersonal neurobiologists talk about “emotional resonance” as a baseline for mental health and wellness. Emotional resonance is key to psychological safety, and it can be cultivated in the workplace (and elsewhere) through simple listening practices. For example: Don’t multitask. Ask open-ended questions. Mirror the person’s tone and pace. Don’t equate their experience with yours. And listen with the intent to understand rather than to reply/retort.

10. Grace
When there’s a culture of negativity, perfectionism, self-criticism, and blame, no one feels safe – even within their own minds. Fear of failure hinders connection, creativity, productivity, innovation, adaptability, resilience, and overall performance. Aim to cultivate a culture of self-compassion and grace for others. When a mistake is made, allow it to be a pit stop for learning and growth before getting right back on track.

A Skill-building Journey

In a world of stress and struggle, instilling a culture of psychological safety can be tricky. It’s a skill-building journey that requires intentionality.

My Compassionate Leadership Workshop is designed to guide you every step of the way. If you’re interested in getting support for your organization as you build a more psychologically safe workplace, please be in touch.

About Andrea

Dr. Andrea Hollingsworth is a speaker, researcher, and seasoned psychotherapist who has spent decades studying the transformative power of compassionate leadership.

One of today’s leading global experts on compassion, she has written and spoken extensively on the subject since 2008. Her articles on the science and spirituality of human relationships have been published more than a dozen times in peer-reviewed journals. She has taught at prestigious institutions like Princeton, Boston University, and Loyola University Chicago, and delivered talks to audiences at some of the top-ranked universities in the world—including Cambridge University in England and Heidelberg University in Germany.

Andrea spends most of her time helping leaders and teams use The Compassion Advantage to build supercharged organizations through cultures of care—especially in times of challenge and change.

She lives in Maple Grove, Minnesota, with her family where she adores good books, conversations, and coffee.