Psychological safety: What does it mean?

Dr Kate Sanders PhD, MSc, BSc (Hons), HV Cert, RN - Practice Development FacilitatorKate Sanders, FoNS Practice Development Facilitator

There are many concepts and ideas that are often spoke about in health and social care, but I wonder how often we really take the time to consider what they really mean, whether we have a shared understanding of them, and if they are being realised in practice. Psychological safety is one of these concepts. There are many definitions but the work of Amy Edmondson is often quoted.

Fundamental to the way in which FoNS works is the creation of spaces (in terms of time but also physical environment) that facilitate learning. We argue that developing a sense of psychological safety is crucial to enabling people to be curious and also courageous so that they can be open to learning about themselves, their practice, their teams and the wider organisation. This may include seeing, hearing and feeling things that cause discomfort.

Psychological safety is something that needs to be co-created but also nurtured over time. I like the analogy used by Brown and McCormack (2011) thinking about the creation of a good soup. Essential to this is the stock, the collection of key ingredients which need to be simmered, so that impurities can surface and be skimmed off, and new ingredients added. This suggests that the development of psychological safety is a process, that requires ongoing attention through facilitation. I have experienced first-hand when psychological safety within a group was lost in an instant – we took our eye off the soup and it bubbled over!

So how do we challenge ourselves to think about psychological safety within our teams? A recent article by Ron Carucci in the Harvard Business Review suggests that we start with ourselves. The key message I gained from the article was the need to be authentic. If we ask people to share their voices then we must really want to hear what they are saying; if we are seeking feedback we must be open to receiving what people want to tell us; and we must be aware of our emotions, being open and honest when responding.

See what you think!

Brown, D. and McCormack, B. (2011) Developing the practice context to enable more effective pain management with older people: an action research approach. Implementation Science. Vol. 6. Article 9.

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