Candidates consider many factors when seeking new job opportunities – location, role, benefits, and compensation to name just a few. Yet there is another element that may be more difficult to explain on paper but is just as critical – organizational culture.

There are many different ways organizational culture can be established and communicated. For example, an organization may have an environment that encourages casual dress to promote individuality and comfort, it could fund advanced education and training, or it could establish a mentorship program to encourage professional growth. Another element of culture that impacts employee experience at an even deeper level, and can have a significant impact on the company’s bottom line, is psychological safety.


In her book The Fearless Organization, Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson describes psychological safety as “a climate in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves.” In practice, this looks like creating a work environment in which employees feel secure in speaking their minds without fear of retribution or embarrassment.

There are obvious reasons psychological safety is good for business – incorporating new perspectives encourages innovation and can also increase productivity and safety. In a psychologically safe workplace, when mistakes are made and learned from, the company can move forward instead of repeating them in the future. Proof of the effectiveness of psychological safety can be seen at Pixar, where candor is essential to the creative process and has helped the organization create hugely successful films and become a leader in the entertainment industry.

Psychological safety is also closely aligned to a company’s commitment to building diverse and welcoming organizations. It is widely recognized that diversity in teams has a positive impact on an organization’s output. Therefore, attracting and hiring employees from different backgrounds (including, but not limited to, race, gender, and disability) should be a priority. Diversity cannot stop at hiring, however; effective collaboration along with employee retention and growth are the true goals. To achieve these ends, leaders must create work environments where employees truly feel comfortable being themselves, and know that they can and should call out issues related to diversity and inclusion so that they can be addressed.


Professor Edmondson’s research led her to develop a Leadership Toolkit to help organizations achieve psychological safety. The three critical elements of that toolkit are setting the stage, inviting engagement, and responding proactively.

Setting the Stage

Before encouraging employees to be candid with one another when sharing feedback and ideas, leaders need to make the logical case for speaking up.

Edmondson uses the example of employees at a hospital. Speaking up in situations when there are safety concerns can save lives, which directly aligns with healthcare professionals’ collective goals and individual purposes. Appealing to employees’ motivations enables leaders to help team members unite under a common goal. By extension, setting the stage for employees to openly discuss issues around diversity and inclusion can connect back to goals of effective collaboration that produces exceptional products and services.

Furthermore, setting the stage is also about reframing failure. Organizations that are afraid to admit failure do not learn from mistakes and cannot move down a more productive, safe, or innovative path. However, when leaders reframe failure as an opportunity for growth, acknowledging failure in an effort to solve problems becomes engrained in the culture and employees become more resilient.

Inviting Participation

After setting the stage by framing the reasons why candor is important, leaders need to encourage employees to engage in open conversation and feedback. Edmondson finds that organizations will often set the bar for participation too high, meaning that employees do not feel comfortable contributing to a conversation if their idea isn’t fully formed, is way outside the box, or contradicts someone else’s point of view.

As Edmondson notes, inviting participation needs to happen in a way that “people find compelling and genuine.” She recommends two key ways of achieving this – adopting a mindset of situational humility and engaging in proactive inquiry. Situational humility is a learning mindset that when put into practice can communicate to employees that bosses know they don’t have all the answers and that other voices are needed in order to achieve organizational goals.

Proactive inquiry means being curious and actively asking employees what your organization could be doing better. Leaders should ask specific questions that invite employees to evaluate their own performance, as well as processes, policies, and practices, with the understanding that the evaluation is to increase effectiveness not to place blame. One such question used by Children's Hospital & Clinics of Minnesota COO Julie Morath to increase patient safety at the hospital captures proactive inquiry perfectly: “Was everything as safe as you would like it to have been this week with your patients?”

Ways to invite participation and knowledge sharing include focus groups, cross-functional teams charged with solving problems, peer-to-peer learning, digital suggestion boxes, and organizing staff meetings to leave time for everyone’s input.

Responding Proactively

The three main elements of a proactive response to feedback and input are that it is appreciative, respectful, and offers a path forward. While not all new ideas will be implemented, the goal of creating a psychologically safe environment is to ensure that employees know their voices are important.

Leaders who thank employees for speaking up and show them respect instead of berating or ignoring them encourage future participation. This seemingly simple practice goes a long way in creating an organizational culture that achieves excellence not by fearing failure, but by identifying problem areas and coming up with innovative solutions.

Setting a path forward in the response could be providing an employee with more information about an issue that may have not been obvious so they have that knowledge for the future. Or a path forward may be discussing how the feedback will be incorporated to help an organization improve. In either case, the employee knows that they were heard and what actions may or may not follow.


Developing a psychologically safe workplace requires organizational leadership to adopt these values and practices so that they are not merely a message, but a way of doing business. Once psychological safety is engrained in your organization, communicating the impact of this culture to potential new hires is very impactful. Case studies about how your organization has developed more inclusive practices or created new products based on employee feedback, candor, and open discussion can be especially effective.

In addition, psychological safety can be included as part of the hiring process itself. Set the stage by explaining to candidates that they are evaluating you as an organization as much as you are evaluating them. Hiring is a two-way street and when candidates are reminded of this, you both can find the right fit which is beneficial over the long term. Then, invite candidates to ask questions. Questions are always part of the recruiting process, but by explaining to prospective hires that questions around culture, diversity, and opportunities for advancement are encouraged the conversation can be more productive. Lastly, respond productively in recruiting by keeping lines of communication open. Transparency and a clear indication of next steps helps to reduce anxiety.

For more on creating a psychologically safe workplace, see Professor Edmondson’s book The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.