written by
Jenni Murto

Understanding Psychological Safety and the Common Knowledge Effect

3 min read

A team is only as innovative, productive and creative as the people in it. And those people are only able to be their best when they feel safe sharing ideas, asking questions and giving feedback. In other words, psychological safety is critical to a team’s success. When the safe space for your team members to share, grow and learn is absent, the risks for low engagement, low productivity, poor decisions and lack of innovation are high.

Psychological safety is not just a fluffy concept from management literature but a physiological process taking place in our brains. Understanding this is crucial to ensure an environment that gets the best out of people. Google identified psychological safety as the most significant success factor in teams across the organisation.

When people feel psychologically unsafe they:
- Generate negative emotion
- Respond by fighting or fleeing
- Reduce cognitive function, therefore reducing potential to contribute and learn at work.

When people experience psychological safety they:
- Generate positive emotion (oxytocin levels increase in the brain)
- Respond with ideas
- Increase cognitive function, encouraging new, exploratory thoughts and actions which leads to innovation.

When psychological safety is absent from the workplace employees don’t dare to challenge dominant thinking. In such environments innovation struggles to exist. As a result teams can begin to experience what is known as the Common Knowledge Effect.

The Common Knowledge Effect

The common knowledge effect means teams tend to focus on information shared by everyone rather than make use of the individual strengths of everyone. Organisations will lose the individual knowledge and expertise each member brings to the table. The very same skills they were recruited for in the first place - limiting creativity and innovation.

Teams that are afraid of conflict tend to seek consensus prematurely and may inadvertently let go of some valuable ideas. They will have trouble capitalising on the diversity of knowledge and expertise in the team according to Kathleen O’Connor, a professor from London Business School who coaches teams on effective collaboration. This often leads to poor performance, poor decision-making and missed opportunities for innovation.

It's clear teams will always rely on common knowledge to some extent. But to leverage maximum team knowledge, teams must leverage each person’s unique knowledge. However, a lack of psychological safety causes teams to spend more time looking for common ground rather than exploring how each person can leverage their unique skillsets for maximum impact.

Psychological safety versus danger infographic

Signs of psychological danger

1. Admitting mistakes is avoided at all costs.
People tend to hold back in the name of self-protection if admitting a mistake can have a disastrous effect on the way others perceive them. Fostering a healthy debate culture can be a way to make “being wrong” OK.

2. Assigning blame is more important than learning from mistakes.
In the name of self-protection employees lay low, agree and try to maintain team harmony at all costs. This will reinforce the “psychological danger” that potentially caused the failure in the first place. Failure should be seen as an opportunity for learning instead.

3. Different views are ignored
Team members are less likely to share ideas or knowledge that stray from what the rest of the group knows, if they observe that outlying views are regularly dismissed. This is another symptom of the Common Knowledge Effect. Actively showing interest in and listening for contrarian views to understand their merits will demonstrate that uncommon knowledge is welcome and valued.

A motivated and innovative workforce

People no longer leave their identity and values at the work place door – physical or virtual. Promoting psychological safety means promoting employee health; mental, emotional and physical. Organisations that ensure their employees feel safe to be themselves will also have a workforce that’s far more likely to be happy, motivated and stay with the company long term.

A lack of psychological safety will do irrevocable damage to your team, and by extension, your company. Research from the last couple of decades shows it again and again: organisations that cultivate a culture of respect, healthy dialog and constructive learning will benefit from teams that are higher-performing, innovative, engaged and adaptive.

It allows people to bring their full selves to work — their talents, perspectives, and energy — which leads to better results for everyone.