Mercy Equaled Psychological Safety


Mercy Equaled Psychological Safety

In the early stages of my career, while in my mid-twenties, I encountered a challenging customer situation that required getting management involved. In hindsight, the prudent approach would have been to first provide my boss with a concise summary of the situation along with my proposed solution. However, I opted for a different path altogether. I proceeded to outline my intended course of action to my boss, justifying my stance by emphasizing the perceived wrongdoing of the customer and expecting my boss’s support. 


To my surprise, my boss disagreed with my approach but granted me the autonomy to proceed as I saw fit. Despite my confidence, my plan backfired spectacularly, requiring me to seek assistance from my boss to help rectify the situation. Instead of reprimanding or punishing me, my boss posed a simple question: “What did you learn?”


In that moment, I was deeply appreciative of the mercy extended to me by my boss, and it left a lasting impression. This was not an isolated incident; my boss consistently provided such mercy, which I later realized was tantamount to fostering psychological safety. He created an environment where mistakes were not only accepted but also viewed as opportunities for learning and growth. The adage of ‘forget the mistake and remember the lesson’ has stuck with me. Understanding the significance of continual learning, my boss prioritized this aspect for my development. 


The impact of this mercy resonates with me to this day. Whether leading my team, collaborating within a group, or coaching my staff, I consciously incorporate mercy when addressing similar mistakes. The concept of psychological safety, albeit not universally understood, holds significant importance. Let us delve into this concept, tracing its origins, evolution, and practical application within teams.


Defining Psychological Safety

Psychological safety denotes a collective belief among team members that it is permissible to take risks, express ideas and concerns, pose questions, and acknowledge mistakes without fear of reprisal. It fosters an environment where individuals feel secure in expressing their authentic selves, free from the apprehension of punitive measures. Since this sentiment is shared among team members, it necessitates a shared responsibility in upholding it.


Significance of Psychological Safety

Establishing a safe environment instills higher levels of engagement and motivation among team members, as they perceive their contributions to be valued and their voices to be heard. It facilitates more robust decision-making processes by encouraging diverse perspectives. Most importantly, it cultivates a culture of continuous learning and improvement, where mistakes serve as learning opportunities rather than setbacks.


Evolution of Psychological Safety

While always pertinent, the relevance of psychological safety has intensified in contemporary work environments characterized by autonomy and discretion in decision-making. With the advent of hybrid work setups blurring the boundaries between personal and professional spheres, issues pertaining to work-life balance and individual needs have become more pronounced. Consequently, psychological safety assumes heightened significance in navigating these intricate dynamics within teams.


What do the studies show?

Studies conducted by Wiley Workplace Intelligence have shed light on the state of psychological safety in the workplace. In a survey of 2,000 individuals, executives emerged as the group experiencing the highest levels of psychological safety, with an overwhelming 93 percent reporting feeling mostly or completely psychologically safe at work. However, the data also revealed a  gap in reported psychological safety levels between different hierarchical levels within organizations, including supervisors, directors, executives and individual contributors


This divergence underscores the imperative for organizations to prioritize building a foundation of trust at every level. Particularly concerning is the finding that individual contributors and managers tend to report lower levels of psychological safety. They express feeling less secure about speaking up and perceive their contributions as less valued. Such sentiments not only impact employee engagement and well-being but also have significant implications for organizational performance and long-term success.


This disparity is further underscored by findings from Great Places to Work, which has been measuring trust – a key component of psychological safety – through employee surveys for over three decades. Their renowned “Safe for Work Study” underscores the pivotal role of trust and care within teams. It highlights that fostering an environment where team members trust and care for one another, and feel reciprocated in this sentiment, is instrumental in driving exceptional performance and satisfaction in their work. In organizations identified as great places to work, this principle is deeply ingrained, serving as a cornerstone for sustained success and employee well-being.


Assessing Psychological Safety

• Determining the presence of psychological safety within a team entails gauging responses to probing questions such as:

• Are mistakes held against individuals? Is there openness in addressing sensitive issues or challenges?

• Are diverse perspectives embraced and respected? Is there encouragement for risk-taking?

• Is seeking assistance perceived as difficult? Are efforts undermined deliberately?

• Are individual skills and talents acknowledged and utilized effectively?

• While these questions do not offer definitive answers, they serve as a starting point for evaluating the degree of psychological safety within a team.


Fostering Psychological Safety

Creating a psychologically safe environment requires a nuanced approach that blends managerial acumen with empathetic leadership. Key practices include establishing clear norms and expectations, promoting open communication, practicing active listening, and demonstrating appreciation for vulnerability and humility. Leading by example, particularly by acknowledging one’s fallibility and sharing personal learning experiences, sets a precedent for others to follow suit.


What is the secret sauce?

Unlocking the secret to creating an exceptional workplace isn’t as elusive as it may seem. While the term “culture” gets thrown around often, its significance cannot be overstated. Organizations consistently recognized as the best places to work share a common thread: a strong organizational culture. This culture is defined by the values upheld and the leadership behaviors exhibited, which serve to align employees’ mindsets and rally them behind a shared mission. What sets apart these exceptional workplaces is the unwavering commitment to reinforcing these values and behaviors day after day.


In the “Safe for Work Study,” companies that garnered high rankings and special recognition for their outstanding levels of psychological safety all attributed their success to their workplace culture. It is this culture that serves as the foundation for their growth and achievement. By prioritizing and nurturing a positive and inclusive culture, these organizations create an environment where employees feel valued, supported, and empowered to thrive.


The mercy extended to me by my boss early in my career, coupled with his insightful query—”What did you learn?”—fundamentally shifted my perspective on handling mistakes. Today, I strive to emulate this compassion and understanding when addressing similar situations with others. As evidenced by my own journey, prioritizing psychological safety not only fosters immediate success but also nurtures long-term growth and development within teams.


By prioritizing psychological safety and nurturing a supportive culture, organizations can unlock the full potential of their teams, driving engagement, innovation, and sustained success. As leaders, it is incumbent upon us to emulate the compassion and understanding demonstrated by those who came before us, transforming mistakes into opportunities for growth and learning. Just as my boss’s mercy left a lasting impression on me, so too can our actions reverberate throughout our teams and organizations, shaping a future where psychological safety is not just a concept but a true reality for all.


Katherine Beaty is Executive Vice President of Customer Experience for TEZ technology. She can be reached at

Article contributed by:
Katherine Beaty, TEZ Technology
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