Can Psychological Safety Create Complacency?

Can Psychological Safety Create Complacency? Much has been written on the importance of psychological safety to reducing stress. It creates  a workplace where people report concerns, near misses, and speak-up without fear of retaliation or ridicule. Not listening to or excluding people who are different from us in their thinking or appearance has the opposite effect.

Additionaly psychological safety also correlates to learning and innovation. It is a state of inclusion and belonging achieved when leaders balance the differences in power and status that often restrain learning and open sharing of information.

However, spite of the research promoting the value of psychological safety in the workplace, there is still doubt that this “soft” approach will develop employees and leaders who are all that they can be.

There are two main beliefs at play. One is that fear of being disciplined or losing your job are strong motivators to follow the company’s policies. The other is that without pain you can’t grow. Doesn’t growing require stepping outside of your psychological safety zone? Brain scientist, Louis Cozolino,(2014), challenged these beliefs saying,

“Those who are nurtured best, survive best. We are not the survival of the fittest. We are the survival of the nurtured.”

Cozolino’s statement raises the question, “Is it possible that developing our employees, listening with respect and implementing their ideas is the most effective way for an organization to survive and thrive? That immediately raises another question.

Does psychological safety mean not giving performance feedback or having frank conversations about not meeting expectations? Quite the opposite, Amy Edmondson states that it creates a relationship where the feedback can be heard and acted upon.


So, how does this all play out in the reality of the field? I’ve written an entire book on the subject. “The Relationship Factor in Safety Leadership” will be published spring of 2019 by Routledge. One of the central messages is that Leaders have to pay equal attention to managing relationships and monitoring the safety management systems.  For now I will share the most consistent behaviors practiced by leaders who do this well and achieve excellence in safety and business results.

Please participate in the conversation and share your thoughts. Do you agree that these leadership behaviors improve safety performance? Would you add others that have worked for you?

  1. 1-1 conversations daily, weekly or monthly depending on complexity and experience
  2. Keep clarifying priorities and goals—check in often on understanding
  3. Offer support when they are doing new tasks
  4. Don’t just ask about the work, ask how they feel
  5. Be present when listening, take notes if applicable so that you can follow up on ideas or requests
  6. Provide both coaching and support for career development to direct reports (DRs) and ensure they are doing the same for their reports
  7. Involve DRs in creating work that is both challenging and meaningful
  8. Make resources available for job skill development—includes supervisory, management and executive levels
  9. Implement the ideas and use the information DRs provide


Louis Cozolino (2014). “The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain (Second Edition) (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology)”, p.7, W. W. Norton & Company.

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