Too much psychological safety detrimental to work performance

Psychological safety may have its benefits but high levels of this can be a counterproductive to the work performance of the employees.
By: | January 12, 2024

While there are benefits to the practice of good psychological safety, too much psychological safety in the workplace may lead to lower job performance.

This was one of the key findings discussed about the concept of psychological safety and the degree of its effectiveness, according to recent research featured in Harvard Business Review earlier this year.

The concept of psychological safety seeks to create an environment where individuals feel safe or secure in expressing themselves without fear of interpersonal harm. Many studies have linked psychological safety to positive benefits such as higher levels of creativity, being more open to asking for help and learning new things.

“But psychological safety is not an ‘either/or’ outcome; it is a question of degree,” said Peter Cappelli, George W Taylor Professor of Management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and the Director of its Centre for Human Resources, and Liat Eldo, Managing Director of the Centre for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and an Assistant Professor at Tel Aviv University. How useful can psychological safety be, both authors asked. “Situations where it may be very useful can mask other situations where it may actually be harmful if we are only looking at averages,” they said.

Thus, Professors Cappelli and Eldo looked at the usefulness of psychological safety across jobs that deal in front-line jobs. What they found was that job performance declined when shifting from work with average to high levels. This could be the result of people taking unnecessary risks in environments where leaders promote “no bad ideas” messaging.

“Evidence supporting the view that high levels of psychological safety are associated with contexts where being held accountable for mistakes is low comes from another workplace characteristic: collective accountability, where employees feel they are together as a group responsible for performance even if they are not held accountable as individuals,” said both authors.

READ MORE: Psychological safety: What employers need to know

Very low levels of psychological safety are also a concern and should be addressed in any workplace, but excessively high levels may be counterproductive in many jobs, the authors concluded.