Making Psychological Safety a Prerequisite in the Workplace

Making Psychological Safety a Prerequisite in the Workplace

In my latest article titled “Turning the Tides – A Squad of Managers With Employees as Stakeholders”, I introduced my favorite Modern Agile guiding principle: Make People Awesome.

I find this so important that, for me, it’s not a Modern Agile principle anymore, it’s one of my core values now. Professional and personal success is not a pie. The success of other people doesn’t remove anything from the rest of us. Quite the contrary, it actually inspires a lot of people. So I just decided that whatever I can do to help people succeed is good for everyone.  

To ensure people’s success on the workplace though, there is another concept that is absolutely primordial. In this article, I would like to explore my second favorite Modern Agile guiding principle: Make Safety a Prerequisite.

What do you mean by safety?

I mean psychological safety.

Modern Agile, which was brought to life by Joshua Kerievsky, gives us a pretty general idea of what safety means :

Safety is both a basic human need and a key to unlocking high performance. We actively make safety a prerequisite by establishing safety before engaging in any hazardous work. We protect people’s time, information, reputation, money, health and relationships. And we endeavor to make our collaborations, products and services resilient and safe.

All of this, however, sounds like a given to me. I really like to go much further than this. You see, in today’s job market, people have the reflex to put on their “professional mask” when going to work. By professional mask, I mean that they feel compelled to show an image of themselves that provides multiple appearances :

  • The appearance of being in control
  • The appearance of knowing what they’re doing
  • The appearance of not making mistakes
  • The appearance of optimal performance

The reason people wear a mask is due to their perception that control, knowledge, perfection, and performance is expected of them at any given time. You’re paid a good salary, so we expect that you should be in control, know what you’re doing, make no mistakes and always be performing. Right?


Wrong because if we wanted this, it would be safer to go with robots or softwares. These things can’t be expected of humans at all times, it’s just not possible, and probably not even desirable.

People shouldn’t be afraid to fail

A safe work environment is an environment where people can grow and learn. And I’m sorry to break it to you, but learning is not possible if you can’t make mistakes. Actually, failing isn’t the opposite of success, it is a huge part of it. People who succeeded are probably people who made more mistakes than others.

One very good example is the story of Thomas Edison. As an inventor, Edison made thousands of attempts at creating an efficient light bulb. When asked by a reporter how it felt to fail so often, he reportedly answered this :

Making Psychological Safety a Prerequisite in the Workplace
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”. – Thomas Edison

Whether the story behind this quote is true or not, you get the idea… And Edison was lucky enough to know what he was trying to achieve. Now, let me list a few things that wouldn’t exist if people didn’t make mistakes :

  • Penicillin
  • The pacemaker
  • X-Rays
  • Microwave ovens
  • Fireworks
  • Ink Jet Printers
  • Post-it notes

All of these things were discovered very randomly by people who were trying to do something else. What kind of world would we be living in if mistakes were prohibited? Failure is an incredible opportunity to learn and discover. I’m not the only one to say it. This little fella was able to encapsulate this whole concept on the silver screen, recently :

Making Psychological Safety a Prerequisite in the Workplace
“The greatest teacher, failure is” – Yoda

As managers and colleagues, it is our duty to create an environment where failure is not something to be frown upon.

People are mostly afraid to be blamed

I think this is one of the root causes as to why some people are so afraid of making mistakes. Since pretty much forever, failure in the workplace has been seen as something terrible because people are often blamed for their mistakes.

I always ask “What do you optimize your system for?

When people are blamed for their mistakes, it is negative reinforcement. It’s the infamous stick that sometimes comes with the carrot. The system is optimized for not making mistakes.

When people are encouraged to learn from their mistakes, it is positive reinforcement. The system is optimized for learning from a situation.

“But some mistakes cost thousands of dollars!” you might say. Fair enough. Are you telling me no one learned anything from the mistake? See it as an investment. Spontaneous training session. Unfortunately, you can’t have tax credits for this kind of training though!

So, how do I make my work environment safe?

There are many ways to achieve this. I don’t know all of them. But I know one thing: if it’s gotta be a safe environment, it’s gotta be safe for everyone, starting with management.

Managers must lead by example

If managers and executives are “always right” and if they “can do no wrong”, the system is optimized to avoid making mistakes. Management mostly set the standard in behavior.

If all managers stay late at work, not a lot of people will be comfortable leaving earlier. If your managers never take vacations, people will feel bad for asking for vacations. So if no manager ever says “I don’t know”, “I need help” and “I screwed up”, you can imagine people will probably try to hide their mistakes.

If managers can’t admit to being wrong or having to improve on something, people will not openly provide constructive feedback. It will actually sound like something very bad. If managers are known for admitting they can improve, people will feel like constructive feedback is something positive.

By admitting our own vulnerabilities, we set a standard in the workplace. We communicate the idea that not being perfect is absolutely fine.

Reward this kind of transparency

If someone admits to having made a mistake, make sure to focus on the lesson that was learned. It should be welcomed, shared and celebrated. Be mindful of not putting people on the spot too much at first. Thank them in person. When you feel people are ready for this and that the culture of safety is strong enough, you can even thank them publicly. What they learned will be useful to others.

A practical action to improve safety at work

In my work unit, we were wondering how to improve the safety of our immediate work environment. There was this idea that I’ve been carrying with me for a few years and that I never brought to reality. A colleague and I decided to make it happen.

We called it “The Wall of Enlightenment

It could have been called the “Wall of Failure” but we didn’t want it to sound so pejorative to those alien to the concept of psychological safety.

The idea is simply to create a place where people can share their mishaps, and what they learned from them. It’s a very simple arts and craft project, with one very simple rule.

Making Psychological Safety a Prerequisite in the Workplace

We started in February. In our weekly announcement session, we explained the concept. Managers had already started filling the first column with their own mishaps. I also explained that I went to see the CEO and made him commit to thanking each and every person who would share their adventures on the Wall of Enlightenment.

After the first month, though, only managers had posted their mishaps. I was a little disappointed, but I kept going. A few days into March, there were 2 new mishaps on the wall, and they were put there by people from the staff. I knew then that at least 2 people out of 23 feel safe in our environment. It’s a wonderful start.

So far, I’m ahead with 4 mishaps shared on this wall, some very embarrassing ones. Instead than being ashamed and hiding those mistakes, I feel safe to have a good laugh with my colleagues and discuss freely how majestic some of my failures were. My colleagues will remember and will probably avoid repeating my own mistakes in the future.

The most interesting thing is how people who visit our office are amazed by this very simple concept. Which reminds me how far we are from fixing the job market. But hey, one has to start somewhere…

Making Psychological Safety a Prerequisite in the Workplace
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Making Psychological Safety a Prerequisite in the Workplace
What does psychological safety mean? Making psychological safety a prerequisite in the workplace should be a priority. People shouldn't be afraid to fail.
Primos Populi
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2 thoughts on “Making Psychological Safety a Prerequisite in the Workplace

  1. This is wonderful stuff.

    I want to remind you here that psychological safety is important, but not the only kind of safety!

    Making the work safe may require new tooling, techniques, and approaches. Safe-to-fail requires some scheduling safety (which is not provided by tight sprint-packing and aggressive scheduling) as well as permission and accountability from management. Safety in development may require new disciplines and tools around coding, testing, and deployment. Safety in contracting and management may require new policies and tools as well.

    There is much to explore!

    1. I really like your comment! Thanks Tim! I agree, it’s not the only safety but I think it’s a prerequisite to all other kind of safeties. If you don’t feel safe to say “no”, yes, you’ll end up overcommitting. There is indeed much to explore. Psychological safety is the one I’ve been lacking most of my career. I’ve asked people in my network, not a lot of people feel safe in their work environment. There’s a lot of work for us to do!

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