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How to measure psychological safety at work

Psychological safety is essential for high-performance teams, so how does your team fare?

In this article
What is psychological safety?How to measure psychological safetyWhat happened when Spill measured its psychological safetyHow Spill can help you measure psychological safety

Spill can help you create and measure psychological safety in your team: find out how.

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  • Psychological safety focuses on the interpersonal dynamics of your team to help them feel able to speak up, share their opinions, and take risks — without fearing any negative consequences.
  • 89% of adults think it’s essential for business leaders to create psychological safety, highlighting its importance: at Spill, we think it's the most important company metric to track.
  • Observation and anonymous surveys are two ways to measure psychological safety on your team.
  • After measuring psychological safety, it’s vital that you act on your findings. Without analysing responses and making appropriate changes, it’s possible to damage psychological safety: your employees have been vulnerable by sharing their responses — acknowledge their efforts.
  • Spill Safety Net can help you measure psychological safety by highlighting the number of people on your team willing to openly share their feelings with the wider company.

When you head up a company it’s not all performance metrics and business outcomes. As well as being accountable for the success of the business, you’re also responsible for the welfare of your team. 

This may well look like office dogs, nap pods, and other thrilling benefits, but it also means supporting your employees’ development, mental health, and general happiness at work. And a lot of that is tied up in the social dynamics of your workplace in the form of psychological safety.

Before you measure psychological safety

We have another article that explores psychological safety and its four stages in much more detail, but let’s recap quickly.

A team that has psychological safety feels safe to speak up, share ideas, and express opinions without worrying about the consequences (like looking ignorant or incompetent). Or as Amy Edmonson, the leading professor in the area, describes it: a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.

In the workplace, psychological safety is deemed to be the strongest proven predictor of team effectiveness (i.e. the difference between high and low performing teams). Teams with psychological safety benefit from feeling accepted, respected, and confident. Their empathy and social sensitivity means that collectively, they can happily collaborate, problem solve, and take risks. With all that in mind, it’s perhaps no wonder that having and measuring psychological safety directly impacts employee engagement, innovation, and wellbeing: a win for both business outcomes and employee welfare.

The difference between psychological safety and company culture

It’s true that psychological safety and company culture are related concepts, but they represent different sides of your company’s dynamics. 

Psychological safety is focused more on the interpersonal side of things. Trust, openness, vulnerability: social skills that will help your team share their ideas, own their mistakes, and challenge general thinking. There’s no fear of sounding ‘stupid’, slow, or negative. 

Company culture however, is centred around the shared values, beliefs, attitudes, and practices that shape how a company works. For example, leadership styles, communication patterns, shared goals, and the company’s overall vision and mission. It’s the personality and identity of your company and impacts employee behaviour, decision-making, and the overall work environment.

If a company lacks psychological safety, it can quickly descend into a toxic culture with poor work-life balance, a negative atmosphere, distrust, disengagement, and high turnover. On the other hand, we’d assert that a reasonable level of psychological safety is necessary — but not always sufficient — in order to build an effective company culture.

Why measure psychological safety?

To prevent your team from entering toxic chaos, it’s important to regularly check in on how things are going culture-wise. We’ve already got a thorough resource explaining how and why to measure company culture, but what about psychological safety?

Well, the reasons are similar. 

One survey has shown that 89% of adults say it’s essential for today’s business leaders to create psychological safety. This tallies with company culture statistics that suggest 77% of employees consider company culture before submitting a job application: people want to work somewhere where they feel secure, engaged, and productive.

And to create that environment, you have to know where you’re at first.

At Spill, we think that psychological safety is the most important employee metric a company can track — especially as a fast-growing company where culture can change in a flash. It can feel intangible, but by measuring it, you’ll not only get a read on how your team is feeling; you’ll also start to educate the team about what psychological safety is and put it into the company’s shared vocabulary.

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Ask the right questions to get an accurate read on how psychologically safe your culture is, and to diagnose what needs improving.

How to measure psychological safety

When measuring psychological safety in your organisation, it's important to take a data driven, business focus and experience led approach. Let’s start with the simplest way to get started with measuring psychological safety: observing your team. 

We know, it sounds basic. And a little underwhelming. But Edmonson did the same thing in her original Harvard paper, too. Why? Because by observing and reflecting on your team’s interactions (as well as your own: psychological safety starts at the top), there’s a lot you’ll pick up on:

  • Maybe you spot the same few people doing most of the talking in meetings.
  • Perhaps someone privately messages you after a meeting with a really good idea that they didn’t mention earlier.
  • Could there be groupthink going on, where once an idea is pitched it becomes the only idea?
  • What about feedback? Or conflict? How do your team speak to you and to each other?

After observation, the best way to know if your employees are afraid of speaking up is to ask them. Anonymously of course. 

How you go about that is up to you: anonymous suggestion boxes, feedback channels, focus groups and interviews are all good ways to gather qualitative data from your employees about their experience of psychological safety. 

Here at Spill, we measured our team’s psychological safety in July 2021 for the first time. Our chosen method was to conduct a survey, much like Edmonson’s method in her original paper: here’s how we did it and what happened next.

Spill regularly asks how your team is feeling, so you never have to worry about an employee slipping through the cracks again.

Learn more about Spill

What happened when Spill measured its psychological safety

As part of her original research, Edmonson asked teams how strongly they agreed or disagreed with seven statements. When creating our own survey, we added a couple of our own questions and slightly rephrased Edmonson’s originals to make them more relevant to startups and fast-growing companies like Spill. 

These statements have been written to evaluate the four stages of psychological safety: inclusion, learning, collaboration, and the ability to challenge.

On a scale of 1-5, what extent do you agree (5) or disagree (1) with these statements?

  1. "People on this team feel comfortable challenging each other about their plans and approaches."
  2. "Members of this team are able to flag problems, even if doing this slows our progress."
  3. "People on this team won't reject others for thinking differently to them."
  4. "It's safe to take a risk or propose a weird idea with this team."
  5. "I feel comfortable giving people on this team constructive criticism, even if they haven't asked for it."
  6. "It's always easy to ask other members of this team for help, even when they've got loads on."
  7. "No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts."
  8. "Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilised."
  9. "I feel confident that I won’t receive retaliation or criticism if I admit getting something wrong."

We’ve made a Google Docs version of the questionnaire that you can download for free to copy the questions and score bracketing into whichever anonymous survey tool you prefer (e.g. Typeform, Surveymonkey, Google Forms)👇

You'll find the download box dotted throughout this article.

A screenshot of Spill's psychological safety test
Spill's psychological safety test

The Google Doc also includes a scorecard that you can use to interpret the aggregate results once everyone has completed the survey.

A screenshot of Spill's psychological safety test scorecard
Spill's psychological safety test scorecard: the higher your team scores, the more psychologically safe your workplace is

Here’s how we scored at Spill when we measured psychological safety.

Overall, we scored 35 out of 45, which puts us just on the boundary of ‘quite psychologically safe’ and ‘very psychologically safe’. But, there were two questions (in red on the left) where we scored pretty low.

A screenshot of Spill's psychological safety test results. The company scored low in two questions: "Members of this team able to flag problems, even if doing this slows our progress" and "People on this team won't reject others for thinking differently to them"
Spill's psychological safety test results

In response to our two problem areas, we made a commitment to improve on them. Here’s what we did:

“Members of the team are able to flag problems, even if doing so slows our progress substantially”

  • Introduce retros half-way through projects, not just at the end
  • Add an anonymous question via Typeform that our team fills in before a meeting: 'What are you most worried about' / 'What's keeping you up at night work-wise?'
  • Encourage senior leadership to acknowledge the elephants in the room, so others feel safe to do the same

“People on this team won't reject others for thinking differently to them”

  • Build up a stable base of unconditional trust by regularly sharing anonymous, unconditional praise to different team members: it’s truly a very lovely thing to do and receive
  • Offer company-wide training on the principles of constructive debate and non-violent communication
  • Reintroduce user manuals so people can better understand each others’ communication styles and ways of working 

Writing this article has served as a good reminder that it’s time to survey the team again and see where we’re at. Once we’ve done that, we’ll add an update. But this is an important point: measuring psychological safety isn’t a one-time thing. To make real change, you’ll need to repeat this process: especially if your team is growing or, like so many, suffering the effects of the economy.

Tips for measuring psychological safety

1. Tell your team why 🗣️

Psychological safety is a sensitive topic and as a result, needs to be handled respectfully. Before dropping a survey or other measurement tool on your team, make sure they understand why they’re doing it. Explain the purpose of the survey, how it works, and how their results will be used. This transparency will build trust (a tick for psychological safety) and encourage higher participation.

2. Consider ‘sampling bias’ ⚖️

Campbell’s law says that the more important a metric is in social decision making, the more likely it is to be manipulated. In other words, if decisions are made as a result of your psychological safety measurement exercise, people may alter their answers and skew the results. It’s a tricky one but there are a few things you could try. The first is to ask people how they think others would answer the question: you’ll find people will give you more truthful answers. Second, is to combine quantitative data with qualitative: for example, you could add a comments section to the survey to let people elaborate on their scoring. Lastly, tools like Spill Safety Net (more on that later), which lets your team share how they feel, tend to be immune to sampling bias because it’s actual behaviour (i.e. will you literally share your feelings now) rather than reported behaviour (i.e. do you hypothetically feel comfortable sharing your feelings).

3. Keep it confidential 🤐

To get the most accurate read on your team’s experience on psychological safety they need to feel safe to provide their honest opinion: they need to trust that anything they say will remain anonymous. (Only ask respondents which team they’re in if your teams have a minimum of around six people in them, otherwise you risk results being too identifiable.) Keep this in mind when you’re analysing results and presenting back to the team, too. Avoid singling out individual responses (try grouping themes together instead) and make sure (repeatedly) your team knows their responses will be completely confidential.

4. Act on your findings 🎬

If you carry out a psychological safety survey but then do nothing with the responses, you could actually end up damaging your team’s psychological safety (unless you land a perfect score, but then we’d suggest to do another review in the not-too distant future).Think about it: you’ve asked your team to be vulnerable but without any action, they’ll think the information has been discarded and that their experiences don’t matter. So, be sure to analyse and feed back on the outcomes, and make changes in line with your findings. If your results show your team has very low (or no) psychological safety, use this as a starting point to introduce the concept.

How Spill can help you measure psychological safety

The therapy that Spill provides not only supports your team's mental health (which in turn, can help build psychological safety): our proactive mental health detection system can help you measure psychological safety in your team, too. 

Our team check-in feature, called Spill Safety Net, lets you take the ‘pulse’ of your company on a weekly basis. Each team member scores their week out of 10 and selects the feelings that best describe how they’ve been feeling that week: good, bad, or anything in between.

A screenshot of Spill Safety Net mood score asking an employee to score their mood out of 10
Spill Safety Net asks your team to score their mood out of 10

A screenshot of Spill Safety Net feelings check-in asking employees to choose the emotions that match their mood score
After scoring their week, your team can choose which feelings reflect their mood

It takes less than a minute to respond and everyone can choose whether or not they want to remain anonymous.

A screenshot of Spill Safety Net asking the employee if they want to share their mood score and feelings with their team or remain anonymous
Everyone has the option of sharing everything or nothing with the rest of the team

With this information you’ll be able to see how people are feeling that week, meaning that over time, you’ll get a feel for any trends: a high level of ‘tired’ employees for a number of weeks or repeated reports of feeling ‘anxious’ suggest something might be going on under the surface.

A screenshot of the admin view of Spill Safety Net, where Spill admins can track their team's mood and emotions over time
The data from Spill Safety Net lets you track your team's overall mood and emotions over time

You can set Spill Safety Net up to replace a link in a regular meeting invite: clicking the link will redirect you to answer the two mood questions before joining the call. 

For anyone who shares a low score week-on-week or who’s mood suddenly dips, a Spill therapist will get in touch with a personal message that addresses the individual's response and invites them to book a therapy session for further support. Spill admins have access to this data, too. For Anna, VP Operations at Spill and our own Spill admin, Spill Safety Net acts as a signal to check in with the team. “When I see people aren’t sharing their responses, I’ll check in with them myself,” she says. “I’ll generally only put in 121s with people when I notice a dip in the percentage of responses shared. If people are sharing their responses regularly it gives me peace of mind that I’m not going to be blindsided by someone suddenly leaving the company or going on leave.”

"If people are sharing their responses regularly, it gives me peace of mind that I'm not going to be blindsided by someone suddenly leaving the company or going on leave."
- Anna, VP Operations at Spill

Proactive mental health screening like Spill Safety Net encourages your team to regularly check-in with their feelings, gets early support to those who need it, and leads to a return of investment of £6.30 for every £1 spent.

But we’re here to talk about psychological safety: so, what does Spill Safety Net have to do with measuring psychological safety? 

Well, employees who share their feelings and their identity must be feeling pretty psychologically safe: they willingly tell you and their colleagues how they’re feeling, and put their name to those emotions. An employee lacking psychological safety would feel reluctant to share this information. 

This feature means you can get a quick read on psychological safety on your team each week by the percentage of employees who openly share their feelings with the company. 

At the end of each year, we award a psych safety badge to the 25 Spill companies with the highest scores for psychological safety based on their percentage of employees sharing their feelings each week. And of course, we shout about it on social media, too.

Spill awards companies with the highest level of psychological safety according to their Spill Safety Net data

A team is only as safe as its least safe member

Remember, your team is only as safe as its least safe member: new team members might not feel as psychologically safe as those who have been on your team for a while. But, with regular monitoring, you can understand how your team is feeling and take steps to make them feel able to bring their whole self to work.

Submit document logo

Get a free psychological safety test for your team

Ask the right questions to get an accurate read on how psychologically safe your culture is, and to diagnose what needs improving.

Check in with your team's psychological safety with Spill Safety Net: a weekly mental wellbeing check for teams. Spot warning signs early and encourage people to open up and share.

Learn more about Spill Safety Net