Psychological safety: Gaining perspective to inform research learning

Year: 2021

Author: Carruthers, Fiona (Jayne)

Type of paper: Symposium

The term ‘team psychological safety’ was introduced by Amy Edmondson (1999) who defined the construct ‘as a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking’, identifying that the  presence of psychological safety positively influences workplace learning behaviour and performance outcomes and can be positively supported by the actions of the team leader or manager. Psychological safety as a concept has salience across all levels of human interaction: dyadic, team, and wider collective or community, with prior research linking psychological safety with the management of individual engagement, change, and human development (Kahn, 1990; Maslow, 1942; Rogers, 1954; Schein & Bennis, 1965; Wanless, 2016). Publications in the field have grown exponentially since Edmondson’s early work, most of which relate to the construct of team psychological safety within the workplace or organisation. With this growth, misconceptions have also surfaced, for example, that a psychologically safe environment is essentially a situation in which people are nice, agreeable and offer unconditional support to others, when more accurately it is one where individuals can feel empowered to take appropriate risks in order to learn and develop. ‘Safety’ is provided through the psychological acceptance that they will not be judged badly or criticised should their actions be deemed in error or not produce the desired results.Doctoral candidature has been shown to be a learning and development context in which participants often report the experience of negative affect, risk aversion, and various levels of disengagement (Cantwell et al., 2017). Research work is beset by uncertainties, yet few researchers have looked closely at candidate psychological safety and what psychological safety research can offer to assist learners and supervisors, despite considerable attention being directed to the importance of candidate persistence, wellbeing, and the supervisory relationship. The paper reports findings from an early phase of conceptual research in a doctoral project that considers psychological safety in the context of doctoral learning and development. It situates psychological safety in the broader context of lifelong learning and specifically in relation to candidate autonomy and the expectations linked to becoming doctoral and contributing new knowledge.