I find that many of the conversations we have about psychological safety tend to devolve into platitudes: “It’s good and we should have more of it” or “managers should create safer spaces”. This doesn’t give anyone any context into why it’s actually important or how we can go about improving it.

This post is going to collect what I know about the neuroscience behind this, with links as I find them. Let me know what I’ve missed.

Psychological safety is being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career (Kahn 1990, p. 708). It can be defined as a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. In psychologically safe teams, team members feel accepted and respected. It is also the most studied enabling condition in group dynamics and team learning research.Wikipedia

What we call anxiety, stress, and fear are all different words to describe our reaction to some danger in our environment. Whether that danger is imagined or real, our bodies react in the same ways and do so in a way that is not voluntary. We don’t choose to act in these ways.

When we are in an environment where we feel unsafe…

  • We are more likely to misread social cues, seeing neutral faces as aggressive and fearful faces as angry.1 Then on top of that, being angry makes us more susceptible to false or misleading information.2
  • Our middle ear adjusts our hearing to amplify low frequency sounds and to dampen high frequency sounds. This makes it easier to hear predators approaching but more difficult to hear and understand human voices.3 This will directly impact our ability to collaborate or hold conversations with others.
  • Our prefrontal cortex is partially or fully shut down to allow more resources to be allocated towards fight or flight. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for our higher level thinking so this effectively takes away much of our capacity for higher thought. This affects creativity, flexible problem solving, working memory and other processes. It also has impacts on short-term memory, attention and our ability to make risk-benefit assessments.4
  • Research shows that with chronic stress, roughly 20% of the hippocampus begins to disintegrate, literally shrinking.5
  • Our brain is flooded with noradrenaline, which helps us focus but a constant flow of this also tires us out quickly.4
  • Our body is flooded with cortisol, which while helpful in a short term survival situation, has many negative side effects over the long term. It suppresses the immune system, increases both blood pressure and blood sugar levels, and decreases learning ability.4
  • The very act of preparing for flight or flight uses up oxygen and glucose which are needed for creative insight, analytical thinking, problem solving and short term memory. All of these are impeded.4

All of these together mean that we are extremely unproductive when we don’t feel safe.

What do we know about the neuroscience that we can leverage to fix some of these?

  • Oxytocin has the effect of suppressing the amygdala and therefore limiting the fight or flight response.4
  • Oxytocin is produced through the sense of belonging or through social alliances.6 Explicit team building can help with this.
  • Trust triggers the release of oxytocin in both directions. We get it when we trust others and also get it when we are trusted, even if we don’t trust the person who trusts us.6 Any approach that improves trust will help. Mob programming can be effective. Clean language as well.
  • Laughter causes the release of oxytocin (as well as a flood of other helpful chemicals), even when the laughter is faked.7 Doing something fun with the team can help.
  • Oxytocin is additionally triggered by touch but this may be less helpful in a business setting. Hugs or even handshakes can help.
  • Trust triggers the release of oxytocin, which calms the amygdala.8 There are explicit ice breakers and other exercises that can increase trust.
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