Self-protection is natural and psychological safety is king!

We are used to acknowledging that the human fight/ flight/ freeze response is driven by the need for physical survival. Did you know that the human brain is wired in exactly the same way to deal with social threats?

Every interaction with another person triggers a change in the intensity and quality of our emotions. A change which typically is out of awareness.

These changes in emotions, driven by our innate need to survive, determine our behaviour. For a high level summary of how this happens, see the box In a Nutshell and check out this article.

The implications are profound. Especially when you remember that the brain conducts intensely personal risk assessments. Its primary concern is self- protection and working at speed it doesn’t stop to test whether a threat is real.

When you understand this, pervasive challenges to project delivery including resistance to change, group think and inconsistent decision-making, begin to make sense in a different way.

Next time your project runs into difficulty, a stakeholder unexpectedly changes their position, or you are disappointed by the conclusions of a review board, stop.

Take a minute to consider whether unconscious processes like those in this article or one of the two illustrations below could be at play.

Group and team environments amplify emotions

There are as many sources of social interaction and emotional triggers as people in the proverbial room. Emotions and behaviours are unconsciously mirrored and acted upon by others. As a result, one or two anxious or frustrated individuals can have a disproportionate impact on outcomes.

In team and group environments our innate need to belong comes to the fore

This brings a raft of additional dynamics. We become sensitive to any indication (real or imagined) that we will be ostracized or ejected. This fear, albeit unconscious, makes us more inclined to go along with irrational decisions and dysfunctional behaviour. It preserves the crucial sense of belonging – even if doing so works against the best interests of project delivery.

Dynamics like these are inversely proportional to psychological safety. We’ll see from Google’s research that they have a significant impact on productivity. First let’s define psychological safety.

Psychological Safety

Psychological Safety exists when people are confident that they will not be embarrassed, punished or rejected for speaking up. They believe it is safe to speak the truth as they see it.

Psychological safety needs to be consciously fostered to create a climate where people are able to voice their hopes fears and concerns – no matter what they are’ [1]

Recognition of the need for psychological safety has informed my work for over 20 years. This approach is gaining traction as neuroscience provides scientific evidence that supports it. Google’s Project Aristotle is one example of research that makes a compelling case for the business benefits of attending to psychological safety.

Project Aristotle

Project Aristotle set out to identify what makes Google’s most effective project teams so effective. Julie Rozovsky, one of the lead researchers explains the findings[2], [3]

‘After examining 180 project teams and 250 variables we discovered that who is on the team matters far less than how the team members interact, structure their work and view their contributions’

It comes down to the group’s norms of behaviour and five key dynamics.

  1. Psychological Safety – is it safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other?
  2. Dependability – can we count on each other to do high quality work on time?
  3. Structure and Clarity – are our goals, roles and execution plans clear?
  4. Meaning of the work – are we working on something that is personally important?
  5. Impact of work – do we fundamentally believe that the work we are doing matters?

Project Aristotle demonstrated that of these five dynamics, psychological safety is by far the most important. It is a pre-requisite for the other four.

I stand by my opening statement. In a world where self-protection is natural – Psychological Safety is king!

How do you measure Psychological Safety?


  • Edmondson, A. Building a Psychologically Safe Workplace, TEDxHGSE, 4 May 2014,
  • Duhigg, C. What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team – The New York Times 25 Feb 2016,
  • Rozovsky,J. The five keys to a successful Google team, 17 Nov 2015,


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