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How do workplace relationships affect Psychological Safety?

This post is the 4th in our 7-part series investigating Psychological Safety. Click here to read ‘What is Psychological Safety?’


Workplace relationships are central to the construct of Psychological Safety. Workplace relationships not only shape the perceptions individuals have of one another, but shape the perception an individual has of themselves. In addition, the way employees and managers treat one another characterises organisational culture. Relationships where individuals feel safe to raise queries, ideas or challenges, when appropriate, are indispensable.

The primary workplace relationship is that of the employee and their line manager. Secondary to that is the relationship of staff with their colleagues. Whilst some responsibility indeed lies with the individual to create Psychologically Safe relationships, senior managers and leaders should provide the framework for a healthy workplace, well-being culture and environment, in order for these relationships to be formed.



The line manager

Amy Edmondson, Harvard Business Professor and leader in Psychological Safety research, states that:

“The most important influence on psychological safety is the nearest manager, supervisor, or boss.” (Edmondson, 2012).

Line managers set the tone and conditions of their relationships with employees. They clarify roles and responsibilities and decide the level of independence of the employee. They determine work priorities and workload, as well as the behaviour expected. This includes the language used, the level of courtesy expected, the time devoted to questions raised and the methods for providing recognition, assurance and value.

Whilst there is by no means only one leadership style that is ‘right’ to instil Psychological Safety, supportive styles of management tend to be most successful. When leaders are supportive, coaching oriented and non-defensive in response to questions or challenges, employees are more likely to consider the relationship a safe environment.



Staff and their colleagues

As Psychological Safety is ultimately a local phenomenon, it is not something that can simply be changed by mandate from the top. Relationships between colleagues of similar level are often where interpersonal interactions occur most frequently and hence is where Psychological Safety is most commonly required.

Research has shown that people typically prioritise warmth, trustworthiness and morality over competence in colleague relationships. Where these aspects do not exist, individuals will be less likely to ask questions or interact in ways required for optimal teamwork and learning. It is likely that if you feel psychologically safe in your environment, your co-workers do too.

Psychological Safety is important between colleagues so individuals can raise ideas with one another and question or challenge the ideas of others. Teams are likely to be composed of this type of relationship and are also where this behaviour is most needed. This behaviour and approach is vital for effective and productive teamwork.



Senior managers and leaders

Generating Psychological Safety across and within the entire organisation begins with senior management. Senior leaders should demonstrate the behaviours and attitudes that they expect of their entire organisation. This is relayed through middle level management and consequently to the entire workforce.

In workplaces where senior managers frequently interact with staff from all levels, this is of even greater importance.

In healthcare and specifically hospitals the workplace structure is based on hierarchical relationships. Individuals are both socialised and intrinsically wired to be sensitive to hierarchy and an individual’s position within a hierarchy shapes their perceptions of how safe it is to take interpersonal risks within their team. In healthcare this may have devastating consequences.

Take a hypothetical nurse Laura. Laura is a newly qualified nurse who works in A&E in a team composed of staff of multiple levels. Laura notices a small mistake in the amount of drug being administered to a patient but is anxious in mentioning it to the lead doctor as last time she mentioned something (albeit incorrectly) she was humiliated in front of the team. A simple error may be allowed to be missed and have devastating consequences for the patient. Psychological Safety between all levels of staff is clearly vital.

Even in organisations where senior management roles are more independent, their behaviour sets an example for managers below them and for other employees. A recent review of the literature highlighted what one might expect; leaders who consistently demonstrate behaviours that create Psychological Safety will stimulate stronger and more enduring benefits than those who only display them at certain points in time (Newman et al., 2017).

In addition, senior management have control over organisational practices, and therefore can create the framework for Psychological Safety. This may include ensuring organisational support, access to mentoring and diversity practices.



It is easy to see that workplace relationships and psychological safety are symbiotic; whilst one can engineer the behaviour and conditions for psychological safety in relationships, psychological safety will also affect the development and nature of these relationships in due course.

Whilst it is convenient to break workplace relationships down into these three categories, it is only with appropriate behaviour and implementation across all areas that an organisation will become Psychologically Safe.

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