The risks of speaking up at work

When we admit mistakes or gaps in our understanding, propose a new idea, or challenge the ideas and decisions of others, we bear interpersonal risk—the possibility of being discredited, penalised or humiliated. Interpersonal risk is greater in ambiguous and complex environments when there is less certainty attached to our ideas. Interpersonal risk is also higher when our counterpart has higher status or more power, experience or expertise than us. Minority status can also increase interpersonal risk. Employees from underrepresented backgrounds face higher levels of prejudice, discrimination, bullying, harassment and other workplace incivility.

Alongside physical safety and security needs, all humans share psychological needs—the maintenance of high self-esteem and connection with others. Our universal needs motivate us to avoid situations that potentially bruise our ego or result in social exclusion or loss of status, or may attract tangible penalties such as financial punishment and reduced opportunities for career progression. When we perceive these risks to be high, we are motivated to engage in impression management techniques. We seek to prevent being perceived as ignorant, incompetent or deviant by refraining from offering novel ideas, masking failures, or conforming to cultural ideals and norms.

In contrast, in psychologically safe settings, interpersonal risks are low. Psychological safety involves contexts in which we perceive that we will not be penalised nor negatively judged for mistakes or failures, for challenging the status quo, or for being different. In such contexts, we are more willing to share novel ideas and to speak up on sensitive issues.

The business case for fostering a speak-up culture

Google’s 2015 study ‘Project Aristotle’ found that psychological safety was the most significant success factor underpinning high-performance teams across the organisation. Contrary to their expectations, the researchers reported that the capabilities of the individual team members mattered less for team performance than group processes (how team members shared information and collaborated). In particular, when individual members attached a low interpersonal risk to voicing their ideas or making mistakes, they were more likely to share novel information or challenge the status quo. In turn, the group was able to access and integrate a greater diversity of thought to drive innovation and to improve judgment and decision-making. Employees in psychologically safe teams were also less likely to want to leave Google, brought in more revenue and were rated as effective twice as often by executives.

Psychological safety also promotes innovation through the ‘broaden and build mode of positive emotion’. Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina has found that positive emotions like trust, curiosity, confidence, and inspiration broaden the mind and encourage divergent thinking and creativity.

Psychological safety also supports inclusion by creating a safe place for individuals to bring their whole selves to work—an environment team members can share novel ideas and perspectives free from the risk of ridicule, rejection or penalty. In a psychologically safe environment, employees are less likely to cover or mask their differences in thinking, behaviours, or lifestyles to fit in and avoid minority stressors and are more productive, effective, and experience higher levels of wellbeing. Engagement is higher, and turnover is lower because employees feel valued for their unique contributions.

On the flip side, a lack of psychological safety has contributed to many noteworthy organisational errors and failures. A reluctance to speak up can be particularly problematic for industries with a higher risk of physical injury or professional misconduct. Cultivating psychological safety reduces the reliance on ‘whistleblowers’ because it fosters an environment where all team members feel empowered to question the behaviours and decisions of others and to call out questionable practices.

Psychological safety is not the norm

In 2017, in a world-first, The Australian Workplace Psychological Safety Survey collected perceptions of psychological safety from a diverse cross-section of Australian workers. Disturbingly, only 24 per cent of respondents reported feeling safe to take risks at work. While psychological safety may be absent in homogenous workgroups, diverse workgroups may have to work harder to foster a speak-up culture. Overall, the results indicated low levels of psychological safety with significant variations across income, age, gender, and education level.

More recently, business school, Hult Ashridge, released the results of their survey ‘Speaking Truth to Power at Work’. Results showed that employees are more likely to raise issues of malpractice or unethical activity than challenge ways of working or offer ideas. This represents a significant untapped resource. Seventy-three per cent of respondents indicated that they could assist their organisation’s performance with an idea, but 38% of these have not spoken up via official channels. The researchers also noted that employees are most guarded during formal meetings.

Other research indicates low rates of reporting of employee misconduct. In 2018, in a survey by the Australian Human Rights Commission, 33% of respondents said they had experienced sexual harassment at work in the last five years, yet only 17% made a formal complaint to their employer.

The role of leaders

Research shows that line manager relationships are instrumental in encouraging or suppressing speaking and listening up more widely in the organisation. Leaders cast a long shadow. A single instance of a team leader critiquing, talking over, or otherwise dismissing a contribution or concern raised by a junior team member can damage perceptions of psychological safety for the whole team. However, because psychological safety is a group-level phenomenon, what matters is not only the behaviours of leaders but also the behaviours of all group members. Leaders must pay attention to workplace interactions as well as their own responses.

Leadership capability for fostering psychological safety

It can be difficult for leaders to appreciate that team members experience the workplace differently from them. Leader blind spots mean that leaders typically underestimate the effect of workplace behaviour or practices on others—they cannot ‘see’ barriers to speaking up because they do not experience those barriers themselves. Taping perceptions of psychological safety and seeking to understand the barriers through workforce analytics and employee focus groups is powerful for disrupting leader blind spots.

Once leaders understand there is a problem, they need to know how to solve it. Many leaders do not know what to do to cultivate a speak-up culture. Techniques for nurturing psychological safety include:

  • Foster a pro-diversity mindset and build diverse teams. Leaders should state explicitly that diversity is a competitive advantage for innovation and growth and should strive to establish diverse teams.
  • Foster a culture of respectful debate. Cooperative conflict is useful for promoting respectful debate. Whereas a competitive approach to conflict involves a win-lose context, a cooperative approach to conflict involves a win-win context that emphasises collective goals and success and supports relational harmony. In cooperative conflict, group members share their ideas, take the perspective of others, confirm their commitment to resolving the conflict for mutual benefit and integrate diverse perspectives to create new solutions. One approach involves employees jotting their ideas down anonymously on post-it notes that are placed around the room’s perimeter for colleagues to read. The manager then facilitates a group discussion of the ideas noted in the context of looking for the best way to integrate those ideas to achieve the group’s shared objectives. This can be contrasted to a competitive workplace culture where colleagues compete against one another in a face-to-face assertive brainstorming session. Formally appointing a devil’s advocate can also reduce anxiety around speaking out by de-coupling the argument from the individual.
  • Reward contributions from all members. Acknowledge and reward team members for speaking up (e.g. offering a new idea, admitting an error, asking a question)
  • Share personal stories. Personal story-telling creates authentic connections with employees and normalises the sharing of personal experiences. Sharing personal information develops empathy and intimacy and enhances perceptions of psychological safety.
  • Practice emotional regulation. Manage your stress response and remain positive, open and approachable.
  • Be available. Leader accessibility provides reassurance to team members that you have their back.
  • Provide room to experiment and fail. Provide protection and support when employees encounter difficulty or challenges in their efforts to innovate and deliver results.
  • Avoid blame. Blame and criticism lead to conflict and defensiveness. Express performance issues using factual and neutral language. Seek the employee’s explanation and ask for suggested solutions. Ask how you can support your employee. Do not punish failure. Show gratitude for quality work and individual and collective efforts, regardless of the result.
  • Model attention to outlaying information. Because confirmation bias and affinity bias can lead employees to discount the views of minority members, and deliberately acknowledge minority input to send a message to the group that all views are valued.
  • Model curiosity. Ask a lot of questions to encourage employees to voice their ideas and to demonstrate a willingness for diverse perspectives and ideas. Actively seek dissenting views and do not shut down ideas. When people feel that their leaders want to hear from them and value their perspectives, they are more likely to input into discussions.
  • Frame job tasks as collaborative learning. Offer the rationale for speaking up. State explicitly that in a disruptive and complex environment, no one person can possibly have all the answers. Make it clear that innovation through creative collaboration is the nature of work and that everyone is expected to contribute to decision-making. Stress that the ambiguity, complexity, and volatility of the business environment necessitate new solutions which can only be generated through the successful integration of novel and diverse ideas.
  • Model reasonable risk-taking and failure. Demonstrate to your employees that it is okay to take reasonable risks even if they do not always succeed. Emphasise that failure is an opportunity to learn and model how this is done by highlighting how your own failures have contributed to a subsequent breakthrough.
  • Model humility and courage. Acknowledge when you have made a mistake and be willing to admit you don’t have all the answers. Acknowledging gaps in your knowledge creates room for others to speak up to fill the gap and also to own and share learnings from their own mistakes.
  • Participative management. Status diversity refers to differences related to professional rank. When status diversity is present, power differentials skew contributions towards members with higher status. Dismantling perceptions of hierarchy improves the willingness of direct reports to share their ideas. Voice your willingness to be challenged on your ideas by more junior staff across the business and reward those who challenge you.
  • Model openness to feedback and criticism. Employ 360 feedback and deliberately seek real-time feedback from employees on your leadership and business practices. Seeking employee feedback on your leadership capability and business practices signals to employees that their views and experiences are valued.
  • Offer development opportunities. When leaders assign high-profile stretch assignments, it signals to their direct reports that they trust their capability.
  • Develop shared norms that promote contribution from all team members. Don’t let any person or subgroup dominate the discussion. For example, a ‘no-interruption’ rule prevents some voices from dominating others. Also, look for signs that someone might have something to add but is holding back and intentionally invite the contributions of all team members.
  • Promote the development of friendships. Trust has two components: affective-based trust and cognitive-based trust. Affective-based trust is emotional and forms as a result of frequent positive interpersonal interactions where individuals share personal information. Cognitive-based trust develops from the demonstration of competence.  Affective-based trust improves intimacy and openness. When group members develop affective-based trust, they are less concerned about exposing their weaknesses or vulnerabilities and less suspicious of other members’ intentions. Affective-based trust reduces the risk of fault lines and promotes the open sharing of knowledge and ideas. Social activities that provide opportunities for non-work interaction support the development of intragroup friendships, as do work schedules that allow time for non-task-based interactions on the job. Open office designs that increase the likelihood of water-cooler-style interactions are also helpful. When team members are geographically dispersed, psychological safety can be enhanced through regular site visits, where possible.
  • Highlight the competencies of members. Whereas developing affective-based trust involves strengthening interpersonal friendships, building cognitive-based trust involves initiatives that promote the sharing of knowledge about group members’ skills and experiences. One way to do this is to ask group members to share their short-form CVs with other members of the group. Leaders can also increase the salience of each member’s value by highlighting the unique contributions each individual brings to the group and by connecting members with other members who possess skills and knowledge that can help them in their roles.
  • Develop a strong group identity. Leaders can reduce the risk of subgroup fault lines in workgroups by employing techniques to strengthen group identity. The creation of an overarching group identity dismantles us-versus-them categorisations. Leaders can strengthen group identity by stressing group goals and the interdependence of group members for the successful achievement of those goals and by reinforcing those messages at regular intervals.
  • Practice upstander strategies. Leaders should learn how to call out inappropriate comments and behaviours in a way that promotes psychological safety, learning, and behavioural change rather than defensiveness, backlash and division.

Additional Resources

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Catalyst (2015). The Secret to Inclusion in Australian Workplaces: Psychological Safety. Retrieved from

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Edmonson & Lei (2014). Psychological Safety: The History, Renaissance, and Future of an Interpersonal Construct. Annual Review of Organisational Psychology and Organisational Behaviour, 1,. 23-43. Retrieved from