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When Is Too Much Safety Unsafe?

November 01, 2021, 4-min. read
Psychological Safety blog

The term psychological safety has been thrown around like confetti lately. And there's no wonder. With the onset of the pandemic, we've all been under a lot of stress. And stress is associated with higher irritability and tension in social interactions. And let's be honest, the social distancing itself surely didn't help either.

You don’t have to be experiencing actual bullying. It’s enough to know that your team does not forgive mistakes, that asking for help means asking for disdain, and that certain topics are simply taboo unless you wish to run into problems or be met with derision. You will always think twice before stating your opinion or making a decision about something. As we’ve already mentioned in many of our previous articles and e-books, data and real-life experience both confirm, again and again, that psychological safety is one of the foundational building blocks of a successful organization.

But is it possible to take psychological safety too far? Could a too-safe environment pose any risks?

What does an environment with maximum psychological safety look like?

I can say absolutely anything without fearing any consequences. I can make mistakes – the same ones, even repeatedly. I can make bad decisions and I don’t have to worry about reactions from others or repercussions. I can ask anyone to help me, at any time, and I receive help. Not only me, but anyone else as well.

However, in this kind of perfect world, several things pose a risk:

Fewer opportunities to learn

Being allowed to make mistakes is a key part of learning and development. However, we don’t always have enough experience, knowledge, or self-reflection to recognize that we have made a mistake. We need feedback from others for that. If they don’t give us any feedback, we lose a valuable opportunity to move forward.


Fewer excellent solutions

It might be safer to accept the first solution or idea that comes along, but it rarely leads to excellent solutions. The best solutions are often generated in a discussion – a constructive and healthy type of conflict in which many different ideas and viewpoints come together. If these ideas and viewpoints aren’t expressed, we lose variety and the ability to mutually inspire one another.

Poorer communication skills

When we face constructive and thought-provoking criticism while presenting our ideas, it forces us to focus on their advantages, benefits, and usefulness; we improve our argumentative skills and learn to be more persuasive. In an environment in which none of those have to be used we do not practice our communication skills and we may lose them over time.

Room for laziness and complacency

An environment in which unreserved and indiscriminate acceptance of ideas and opinions of others is expected will create room for laziness and complacency. The same goes for the option to always ask for help and knowing I will receive it. Why would I think about issues and put effort into dealing with them when agreeing is not just comfortable, but also desirable, and when I will receive help whenever I request it?

Skeletons in the closet

Psychological safety might come with the paradoxical fear of harming others and hurting them in potential conflict. Certain things might then remain unstated, yet they might be causing hidden harm and corroding team atmosphere. It’s good to realize that not all conflict is detrimental. Some types of conflict can also serve a function and may help solve issues.

What is the conclusion?

Psychological safety should not be a goal but a means to a goal. In order for it to work, it’s important not to refrain from doing certain things or avoid them - on the contrary, it’s important to develop them.

And which things are those?

  • Feedback
  • Communication
  • Conflict resolution
  • Emotional intelligence

If we support these skills in ourselves and our team members, we will gradually build a psychologically safe environment within our team and at the same time, maintain effectiveness and performance and our solutions will be the best possible.

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