Feeling comfortable and empowered lets you take more risks, speak out more and solve problems better, research says - but your boss needs to set the tone for a safe space for all.

One day, Lucy Parsons’ boss arrived at work without his usual moustache. It was a small thing, but she felt stressed. Should she mention it or not? Would it be OK to make a quick joke or at least ask what happened?

Back then, she was a 23-year-old who had just completed her company’s graduate scheme. She was working on interesting projects at a retail firm in the UK and her career path looked promising. But she struggled to grasp the small, unwritten rules of the corporate world.

“It was this constant analysis and navigation of what I could say, what I could not say, what I could do, what I could not do,” she recalls.

Many workers will understand Lucy’s anxiety. If you think about it, a lot of what we do at work carries some risk. What happens if someone dislikes an aspect of your personality? What is the line between being friendly and being a nuisance? How much of yourself can you safely ‘let go’ at work?  

As it turns out, the way teams allow people to ‘be themselves’ at work has important implications. Recent research suggests that work environments where people feel able to take interpersonal risks not only perform better, but are also more creative and more likely to solve problems effectively.

This feature, called ‘psychological safety’, has many upsides. More than that, it is changing the workplace in surprising ways.

Why safety beats talent

It can be hard to speak out at work or disagree with a colleague. In some environments, there is a real risk of being embarrassed, rejected or even punished for doing so.  Psychological safety means being able to take those risks safely. “It is being able to share different ideas without feeling ostracised,” explains Alexander Newman, a psychologist and researcher on Deakin University in Australia.

It covers attitudes and behaviours like being able to talk through issues and point out problems, ask for help or simply be different without feeling rejected. The concept was defined in a 1999 academic paper by Amy Edmonson, a researcher from Harvard University who studied how a team “obtains and processes data that allow it to adapt and improve”, an ability she called ‘learning behaviour’. She found that the safer a team was, the better they learned.

Psychological safety seems like the HR equivalent of a miracle drug

Edmonson thought her findings were important: “With the promise of more uncertainty, more change and less job security in future organisations, teams are in a position to provide an important source of psychological safety for individuals at work.”  Since then, it has been found that psychological safety also correlates to better performance and higher creativity in work teams. On an individual level, researchers say it has a positive effect on engagement and commitment.

The concept really became fashionable after a 2016 Google study which found that the better performing teams were not those with the more capable or talented members, but those which excelled at working together. In turn, the better predictor of a good team turned out to be its psychological safety, an internal guide says.  

People who work in such groups “are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives”, wrote the lead researcher from the tech giant, Julia Rozovsky.

Psychological safety seems like the HR equivalent of a miracle drug, but the way to achieve it seems counterintuitive. In teams where ‘groupthink’ is dominant or where making and acknowledging mistakes is costly, workers tend to strengthen their individual position and appear less vulnerable to their peers.

 

But the exact opposite behaviour is needed to achieve psychological safety: teams need to embrace vulnerability in order to ‘lower the cost’ of taking risks. “The safer team members feel with one another, the more likely they are to admit mistakes, to partner and to take on new roles,” writes Rozovsky.

Giving workers a voice

To do that, colleagues must build empathy. “You have to make sure people respect each other’s views,” says Newman. Workers should not only listen but understand their colleague’s perspective. If you know why someone acted as they did, you feel less inclined to judge them.

This is especially true for people who struggle to grasp a group’s norms, he adds, like very young or shy workers, or those facing cultural barriers. If they feel misunderstood or ostracised, they are less eager to stand out and show what they have to offer, says Newman.

 In the old days most organisations were run by fear - Thom Dennis

There is not much research on any possible link to mental health, but Parsons’ anecdotical experience suggests that employees in unsafe environments can pay a hefty toll. “I was very depressed, I gained a lot of weight. I spent a lot of time in the office crying, and eventually someone noticed. It made things worse, of course.”

Psychological safety is particularly important for bringing out the best in a diverse workforce (and recent research indicates diversity can benefit profitability). Newman explains that in safe environments “minority workers tend to speak out more” and be more productive. A US research paper found that psychological safety allows minority workers to “mitigate individual fears associated with identity expression, paving the way for individual performance”.

Perhaps psychological safety is part of is the reason why decades-old grievances about gender and race issues at work, such as the #MeToo movement, are starting to be aired. “In the old days most organisations were run by fear,” says Thom Dennis, a work psychology consultant. This silenced victims for decades, but now “they are feeling empowered enough to do something about it”.

Creating a safe space

Psychological safety is mostly a feature of teams, not organizations or branches — some teams within companies will be safer than others. Therefore, creating psychological safety cannot be a ‘top-down’ initiative.

Psychological safety depends on group norms. Unlike explicit rules, norms are shared conventions and standards, and they are not necessarily written down or explained out loud. Some groups can enforce consensus more than others, be more open to questioning leadership, accepting and correcting mistakes, or encouraging junior members to express opinions. None of these things are likely to appear in an official work contract, but they are all crucial to creating a safer environment.

Some group leaders may incline more towards making their teams feel safer, if they have personality traits like empathy or willingness to listen. Still, psychological safety is not something that happens by chance — there are things leaders can do to encourage it.

If they feel misunderstood or ostracised, they are less eager to stand out and show what they have to offer

In Dennis’ view, leaders should examine the way they exert power and influence. An imposing boss, who resents questioning or needs the last word, tends to make groups rather unsafe. In many cases, he says, change needs to start at the top. “Part of the exploration of a good leader is to understand the drivers of their ego.”

Another feature of psychological safety is accepting failure. The Silicon Valley attitude of tolerating errors or even celebrating them seems a healthier way to go than condemning them. “Groups where mistakes are not frowned upon are more psychologically safe,” says Newman.

Showing vulnerability also might work. As reported by The New York Times, a successful Google manager who was trying to implement Rozovsky’s findings to improve morale asked everyone in his team to share something about themselves. He went first: ‘‘I think one of the things most people don’t know about me is that I have Stage 4 cancer.” After his disclosure, everyone felt freer to discuss difficult work issues, the paper reported.

The key is enabling people to speak honestly. In Dennis’ view, companies should create safe spaces at work, because information about problems tends to get stuck on its way to the top and psychologically unsafe groups may well remain under the radar of HR or top leadership teams. Newman says that leaders should explicitly encourage workers to express their own opinions and foster a climate of respect.

It is an effort worth making. Parsons’ experience shows both how subtle psychological safety can be and how deep can it run. Nothing was really wrong with the company, she says, the environment was not toxic and people were all very capable. The problem was something in the culture, something subtle enough her boss was very surprised when she left.

“How did a guy who sat two desks away from me, who I spoke to several times a day, every single day, not notice how bad I was feeling?” she asks. It happened nine years ago, but she still sounds baffled.

--

To comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Capital, please head over to our Facebook  page or message us on Twitter.

If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called "If You Only Read 6 Things This Week". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.