‘Do you feel safe? … The importance of ‘psychological safety’ when working in a Psychologically Informed Environment (PIE)’

Dr Helen Miles
10 min readJul 30, 2021

30.07.2021: For this week’s PIE blog, as the lead for Psychologically Informed Environments (PIE), at the national youth homeless charity; Centrepoint, I have been reflecting following several reflective practice discussions, meditation and supervision sessions recently on the concept of ‘psychological safety’ and how this manifests in teams. I am privileged in my role to work with lots of different teams across the organisation, both our ‘frontline’ teams (i.e. those that directly deliver services to homeless young people) and our ‘support’ teams (i.e. those whole roles enable or highlight this delivery). Consequently, I see Centrepoint as a diverse and varied organisation with over 500 staff who hold many different roles but who all come together with one purpose to #endyouthhomelessness. However, working within teams is not always easy as human beings are individuals with their own needs, wants, desires, ambitions, values, personalities and experiences. Whilst this diversity is a strength, unless a team environment feels ‘psychologically safe’, team working can also bring about significant challenges. Therefore, as our PIE team slowly grows and embeds within the organisation, and our whole position in the organisation requires us to work extensively with other teams, I have been reflecting on a psychologically informed approach to creating ‘psychological safety’ within a team environment.

What do I mean by ‘psychological safety’? We all know what feeling ‘physically safe’ at work means, and hopefully despite the challenges of working in the homeless sector (and during the current COVID-19 pandemic), I hope that most of us generally feel physically safe in the workplace. However, ‘psychological safety’ refers to ‘the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes’ or put another way, it is ‘a shared belief held by members of a team that others on the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish you for speaking up’. Altman (2020) goes further and notes that ‘when you have psychological safety in the workplace, people feel comfortable being themselves. They bring their full selves to work and feel okay laying all of themselves on the line’. Therefore, the team (or organisational climate) is characterised by a sense of interpersonal trust between colleagues and there is a ‘climate of respect’ and ‘openness’. This creates the conditions for collaboration between team members and they feel safe to take risks, which allows for change and innovation. Just like within a Psychologically Informed Environment (PIE) the most important aspect of creating psychological safety therefore begins with the importance of ‘relationships’, specifically the importance of a ‘sense of belonging’ and ‘acceptance’. It also relates to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (c.f. see previous blog here: https://drhelenmiles.medium.com/bemoredog-the-importance-of-not-forgetting-our-basic-needs-when-managing-our-psychological-31b14ed16c69) that we all need to have our basic needs met whether at home or at work before we can reach our full potential.

Moreover, according to Clark (2020) in his book: ‘The Four Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation’, employees within a team need to progress through the following four stages before they feel free to make valuable contributions and perhaps challenge the ‘status quo’ within their teams. Specifically, he notes that the first stage relates to ‘Inclusion Safety’ — this is when we feel like we connect and belong within our team and satisfies that basic human need for these. When we first join a team, it can naturally take a bit of time to start to feel safe to be ourselves and perhaps feel accepted for who we are, including our unique attributes, skills and defining characteristics. However, without this stage, then we cannot progress to the next stage: ‘Learner Safety’. This is when we start to satisfy the need to learn and grow, by feeling safe to exchange in the learning process (i.e. asking questions, giving and receiving feedback, experimenting and perhaps even making mistakes). The third stage of ‘psychological safety’ is ‘Contributor Safety’ — which relates to our need to ‘make a difference’ and is when we feel safe to use our skills and abilities to make a meaningful contribution to our teams. The final stage is ‘Challenger Safety’ and involves our need to ‘make things better’. In this stage, we feel safe to speak up and challenge the status quo when we notice an opportunity to change or improve something.

Much of creating a PIE in the homeless sector is how we create psychological safety for the homeless young people we work with. In other words creating a ‘secure base’ (c.f. Attachment Theory: Bowlby, 1967), perhaps for the first time, that enables them to feel that they are of worth, that others are trustworthy and that the world is not a hostile place. This creates the conditions for growth and change to #changethestory for them. However, I would argue that this need for a ‘secure base’ does not just apply to the homeless young people that we work with, but also with each other within our teams. This will improve our working conditions and relationships with each other, which ultimately enables us to attract and retain high quality employees in order to have the best possible outcomes for homeless young people in the UK. Moreover, if we have a lack of psychological safety at work (i.e. employees do not feel comfortable talking about things that are not working), as an organisation we will not be equipped to prevent failures and we lose an opportunity to leverage all the strengths and talents of our employees.

So how do we create this ‘psychological safety’ within our staff teams? Arguably, a large amount of psychological safety comes from the leadership of our teams and is something that I hope as we continue to develop our ‘People Strategy’ at Centrepoint we can consider so that we are truly ‘psychologically informed’. Sometimes it is also helpful to reflect on what a lack of psychological safety looks like in order to recognise when we do have it (i.e. ‘Psychological Danger’). O’Connor (2016) notes that when psychological safety is absent, teams can lose the individual knowledge and diversity of expertise that each member of the team brings to the table, thus creating the ‘Common Knowledge Effect’. In this state, teams tend to focus on ‘shared information’ already present in the team and can lead to poor performance, poor decision-making and missed opportunities for innovation. Team members fear being ‘wrong’ and may not speak up for self-protection, they focus on attributing blame rather than expressing gratitude for successes, don’t see mistakes as a learning opportunity and ensure that outlying views are ignored or dismissed. In a ‘psychologically safe’ team, we are comfortable admitting our mistakes, learning from failures and sharing our ideas openly, which leads to better innovation and decision making. This difference between ‘psychological danger’ and ‘psychological safety’ is summarised in the diagram below:

Importantly, Altman (2020) argues that ‘psychological safety at work doesn’t mean that everyone is nice all the time. It means that you embrace the conflict and you speak up, knowing that your team has your back, and you have their backs … people need to feel comfortable speaking up, asking naïve questions, and disagreeing with the way things are in order to create ideas that make a real difference’. Amy Edmondson (2019) in her book; ‘The Fearless Organisation: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth’ also notes that employees must be allowed to voice half-finished thoughts, ask questions out of left field and brainstorm out loud in order to create a culture that truly innovates. As I reflect on many of the teams that I have worked with over my career, I can see which of these created ‘psychological safety’ and which perhaps felt more like ‘psychological danger’. Those that created the former, were the teams that I think I worked best within and gave me the most personal and professional satisfaction.

Therefore, in order to create ‘psychological safety’, a key driver comes from how organisational systems and senior leaders transmit broader social forces that affect attitudes and behaviour. For example, as Michael (1976) highlights: how do we ‘embrace errors’? Too much focus on hierarchical systems and ‘blame’ can discourage systematic analysis of mistakes in reflective spaces that allow us to better design systems to prevent them. We have to accept that both individual skills, motivation and cognition as well as organisational systems are inevitably flawed. After all, we are all ‘only human’. This powerful impact of managers and leaders was highlighted in one study by Edmonson (2004), which explored hospital team dynamics and the impact on errors, performance and relationships (i.e. psychological safety). This research (c.f. video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=LhoLuui9gX8) found that alongside the role of organisational supportiveness and adequate resources, there was a powerful effect of a climate of openness (versus a climate of fear) upon these outcomes. Managers and leaders created this by their words and behaviour, which was then internalised by their teams and further reinforced by their interactions with each other. Well-functioning or ‘psychologically safe’ teams can coordinate tasks, anticipate and respond to each other’s actions, catch each other’s mistakes and appear to perform as a seamless whole (e.g. see study on flight crew errors by Foushee et al, 1986). As the Gestalt psychology tradition argues ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’, ‘Gestalt’ meaning ‘configuration’ or the way that things are put together, which I think it a great way of conceptualising the power of ‘successful teamwork’.

How managers or leaders can create ‘psychological safety’ in our teams has been summarised by psychologists in five key points, although whilst the onus to a large degree maybe on leaders to direct the culture, I believe that many of these points can equally apply to all the members of a team. The first suggestion is that we need to make psychological safety an explicit priority and thus talk about the concept within our teams, in order to promote engagement and inclusion. We all need to model the behaviours we want to see in others ourselves and ensure we never underestimate the power of showing empathy in the workplace not only to the homeless young people we support but also to our colleagues. The second suggestion is to facilitate everyone in the team feeling able to ‘speak up’ and ensuring we keep open lines of communication even when this might not be ‘good news’. This may be through having an attitude of genuine curiosity, compassion and the honouring of ‘truth-telling’, and can happen though the fostering of a healthy culture of debate (or being ‘devil’s advocate’) within team discussions. A wide diversity of opinions should be therefore be encouraged and these need to be separated from pre-existing friendships or personalities, which allows any discussions to focus on the facts and ideas rather than the person who is raising them.

A third suggestion is that we create team norms for how failure is handled, and do not punish innovation or (reasonable) risk taking. Instead, within the context perhaps of our reflective practice sessions as well as our day-to-day interactions with colleagues we try to encourage learning from mistakes or disappointments, and share both good practice and learning within and between teams. This creates a culture of evidence based reflective practice and innovation, which of course is a key ingredient of a PIE. Next, we can also use these reflective spaces to create spaces for new ideas, even those that might seem a bit ‘out there’. Perhaps at times, we need solutions that are thoroughly tried and tested but at other times, perhaps those more creative or ‘out-of-the-box’ ideas might just be helpful and lead to a new or interesting innovation, as well as encouraging a more innovative mind-set in our teams. Finally, psychologists note that although sometimes challenging, we need to embrace productive conflict. Sometimes our views differ from our colleagues or we might not always get on with each other, but psychological safety in a team happens when we can resolve these constructively, openly and respectfully.

Why is all this important? Because although it is easier to focus on tasks and time management, taking a moment to focus on team dynamics in a psychologically informed way can help create a more productive and positive working environment that has better outcomes for ourselves and those homeless young people we work with and support. Whilst we still need to hold onto the importance of ‘accountability’ at work (i.e. those dreaded Key Performance Indicators or KPI’s!), as the picture below notes, if we do not combine this with psychological safety then we just create a culture of ‘anxiety’ amongst our teams. Conversely, of course ‘psychological safety’ alone is not enough as without accountability we are in danger of creating apathetic teams or teams that are too ‘comfortable’ and don’t innovate. However, if we can combine accountability at work with this ‘psychological safety’ then we create the ideal — that ‘learning zone’ that delivers the best for both our colleagues and the homeless young people that we support.

Therefore, my reflective challenge to readers of this blog this week is to consider how we might create those conditions for psychological safety in our teams. I would argue that creating a truly psychologically informed environment or PIE at Centrepoint does not stop at just how we work with the homeless young people in our services. It also involves how we work we with each other to ensure that we all experience ‘psychological safety’ at work in order to be the best version of ourselves that we can be.



Dr Helen Miles

Consultant Clinical & Forensic Psychologist & Head of Psychologically Informed Environments (PIE) at Centrepoint @orange_madbird