Neuroscience tells us that the brain is wired for safety. Its primary function is to keep us alive – striving to use resources efficiently, conserve energy and warn us of dangers that might threaten our survival. The world of work has many challenges – some more risky and threatening than others – but there are also opportunities which require some risk taking and reaching beyond our comfort zone, in order to grow.

Research shows clearly that working within a psychologically safe environment provides the ideal conditions to minimize threats and enable teams to access the best inputs from their members. In this article we connect three different aspects of neuroscience research to suggest a holistic view of psychological safety.

The brain is wired for safety

Starting with the basics, it’s interesting to know that a good proportion of the brain’s capacity is dedicated to running our bodily systems – circulatory, nervous, respiratory, digestive, renal, endocrine – without us being aware of what is going on. What we are aware of are our thought processes, reactions, decisions, emotions, choices, worries etc. Given that it has a lot to do to keep us safe, the brain is looking for ways to conserve energy and one way it does this is by making predictions so that we know what to expect and what the outcome of any given situation might be.

Dr Lisa Feldman Barrett, Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University conducted revolutionary research on emotion in the brain – concluding that emotions are indeed the result of brain predictions.

To respond to any situation efficiently (in terms of brain resources), the brain compares what it knows about a situation and asks, “have I experienced this before?”. If the answer is yes, then it predicts that the outcome will be the same as before. This consumes a lower amount of brain energy, like habits that we perform unconsciously. If the answer is no, then we have no model for how things will turn out and need to create and bank that new experience for the future. Maintaining safety under unknown conditions therefore consumes more energy.

To put it another way, predictions save energy, so sticking with what you know is energy efficient. This is an important finding for change management as it helps explain why there is resistance to change (it’s simply easier and more resource efficient not to change) and why people get exhausted during a long change effort.

Threats to our “safety” at work

To take the idea of safety a little further, consider David Rock’s research about the way people interact socially (including, of course, at work). The research demonstrates that our brains have a basic driver to minimize threats and maximize rewards, which resonates with the driver to conserve energy. Apparently, when we encounter threats in social situations, the brain uses the same brain circuitry as it does for physical threats, and experiences social threats with the same intensity.

So, when we feel threatened by a social situation at work – such as a critical colleague or being treated unfairly – this is experienced in the same way as a threat to our physical well-being. The threat response is more intense and more commonly experienced than the reward response (most likely because we are wired for survival hence more alert to threats), and can impact our ability to collaborate, problem solve and make decisions.

Threats literally change the functioning of the brain, decreasing resources available for higher order “executive” functions in the prefrontal cortex. It diverts oxygen and glucose (its food) away from working memory and decision-making functions, in order to deal with the “physical” threat.

Rock devised the SCARF model to explain 5 different domains of potential threat/reward:

  • Status refers to our importance relative to others – conveying value and respect
  • Certainty is our ability to predict future outcomes – enabling focus
  • Autonomy is the need to have control over events – leading to engagement and satisfaction
  • Relatedness is our sense of belonging – feeling included and part of the group
  • Fairness is a sense of justice – ensuring fair exchanges between parties

A threat to one of these domains will be experienced by the brain in the same way as a threat to our life – without a conscious awareness of what is happening. This has huge implications for the way we experience the world of work. It also means that when we are under threat, not only do we instinctively want to move away from the source of the danger, but it may drain more energy if we cannot draw upon a prediction of the likely outcome.

Staying safe and preserving energy

Professor at the Harvard Business School Dr Amy Edmondson originally coined the term “psychological safety“, which she defines as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking”. This means that team members have confidence that others won’t embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up. Psychological safety is related to trust, but it also refers to:

When someone is in a psychologically safe environment, the team will give them the benefit of the doubt. They feel more comfortable making themselves vulnerable, particularly if they (or others) have been treated well in previously vulnerable situations. The more safety is demonstrated for others, the more generous people are with sharing resources, skills and knowledge, and the more they can expect in return.

The critical thing about safety is that it enables people to speak up, to contribute, to share ideas, to take risks. In the knowledge work economy, we need everyone’s best ideas and efforts to contribute to the work we are engaged in. If people are silent because they don’t feel their input will be well received or will be criticized, a great idea may never be discovered, and people won’t be engaged or contribute their “discretionary effort”.

To give a real world example, back in 2015 Google identified psychological safety as the top driver of high team performance. Their research concluded that although it is natural for people to indulge in self-protection to preserve a perception of capability, this behavior is detrimental to teamwork. Where people feel safe enough to admit mistakes and take risks (i.e. to be vulnerable), this leads to more effective results and the generation of more diverse ideas.

Delivering psychological safety in a virtual world

Taking all these ideas together, we can conclude that creating a psychologically safe environment for teams and organizations not only unlocks potential but increases energy by removing threats and the adverse effects they have on our brain’s resources.

In the current climate, where many teams are working virtually, we must be more intentional and deliberate in our interactions with colleagues and be more explicit. In the office, people could overhear conversations and pick up on useful information and knowledge. Working apart, we need to think about what we could usefully share with colleagues, or to go out of our way to ask questions or reveal mistakes that might otherwise not be obvious.

Amy Edmondson, writing in the early phase of the Covid-19 pandemic, suggested 3 useful actions for leaders to consider:

  • Explicitly acknowledging where uncertainty exists – its fine for us to learn together 
  • Seeking employee engagement by asking questions and explicitly inviting ideas and views
  • Being appreciative of people’s contributions and encouraging others to follow suit

Simply asking your team “How can I help?” shows that you are there to enable them, not to direct them. Showing that you don’t have all the answers also provides space for people to contribute. This can be reinforced through effective coaching and mentoring. There is a lot to be said for humility – research[1] shows that the teams of leaders who appear humble report more psychological safety.

Creating your own psychological safety 

Many believe that the creation of psychological safety at work is the job of the manager, and indeed there is no doubt that in terms of role modelling, setting the tone and leading, the manager’s role is critical. But there are certainly things everyone can do to protect themselves.  

Writing in Forbes back in 2018, Dr Karlyn Borysenko promoted the idea that people can learn to be psychologically safe by empowering themselves, and role modelling the behavior they’d like to receive from others. In effect this is a way to “be the change you want to see in the world” (of work).   

Borysenko encourages people to reframe their views of “failure” and what constitutes it. Very often we get in our own way – we anticipate failure before we start on a task or initiative, because we anticipate that negative outcomes arise from failure. Linking back to SCARF, we could say that putting an idea forward and having it rejected may reduce our sense of status (threat) so we retreat from it. Similarly, blame cultures stifle creativity and discourage people from taking risks. 

What would it be like if failure was an acceptable and expected step on the route to achievement and success? Perhaps when something goes wrong, we shouldn’t call it “failure” (with all its connotations), but part of our testing / development process, a way to discover and learn about the best way forward. Only we can choose how we view what happens in our lives. We can choose to see things as failures or as opportunities – experiences that help us grow and develop. 

Another way to create safety for ourselves is to support others by sharing resources, skills and knowledge that might be helpful to them – even if it’s not our job and doesn’t meet our personal objectives. One day that kindness and support will be repaid – and by doing this we encourage others to behave in the same way. 

In conclusion 

Safety enables us to be vulnerable and to take risks in order to grow. Without safety, we perceive more of what happens as threatening – and we know that threats can paralyse us, consume excess energy and lead to a team or organizational culture of silence where people don’t speak up and fail to give their best ideas. 

Being more alert and aware of the impact of social threats and safety is a way to better understand ourselves and protect our brain’s precious resources. 

Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), 350–383.

Swain, JE (2018). Effects of Leader Humility on the Performance of Virtual Groups. Journal of Leadership Studies, Volume 12, Number 1, 21-37