What happened the last time you made a mistake?

Have you ever wanted to ask a question during a meeting, but didn’t because you thought you should already know the answer? Or have you noticed an issue with a project but kept it to yourself because you were afraid of calling out a team member’s mistake? While it may feel safer to not ask questions, admit weaknesses or share critiques, you end up missing out on something important: small learning opportunities that help you and your team grow.

Dr. Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School, studies the relationship between successful teams and how they handle mistakes. When she began her research in 1999, she hypothesized that the most successful teams would make the fewest mistakes. Surprisingly, this was not the case! She discovered that the most successful teams made more mistakes. However, they were open and candid about them and used them as learning tools. From this research, Edmondson identified the concept of “psychological safety,” or the belief that you won’t be punished for making a mistake (Delizonna, 2017).

Edmondson explains that psychological safety is not about being “nice” to each other; it is about trust. Building trust through candid feedback, shared learning, and the ability to admit mistakes without fear (“Creating Psychological Safety,” 2019). The concept of psychological safety impacts employees at all levels and, therefore, the overall success of your team.

The alternative – a lack of trust between team members – can create a culture of blame, denial, and cover-ups, which stems from wanting to look competent in front of our colleagues. How does this impact a team’s success? When employees do not have psychological safety, they don’t share new ideas, innovation is slowed and competitive advantage stalls; the team suffers. Healthy teams still have issues, they just have a positive way to channel mistakes into learning opportunities and improvements.

So, what happens if you make a mistake at work? If you are a leader, what happens if someone on your team makes a mistake? If you’re told to keep your eyes down and “don’t rock the boat” these are warning signs that your team is in trouble. How can you improve psychological safety on your team? Key aspects of a psychologically safe work environment include learning and practicing resiliency skills and modeling behavior that will help others feel safe.

Psychologically safe environments include many different expressions. To help you begin to think about your work environment, do you agree or disagree with the following statements?

  • I can express my opinions and ideas without fear of negative consequences from my team, my supervisor, or my peers.
  • I am encouraged to take risks and try things.
  • When I make a mistake, I can easily own it.
  • My supervisor helps us get comfortable with failure.
  • There is a humble spirit that allows us to try new ideas.
  • I work in an environment where respect is shown to all employees.
  • We can work through conflict productively.
  • Accountability is evident for both supervisors and employees.
  • Mistakes are “lessons learned.”

Interested in learning more about psychological safety? MSU faculty and staff can access the resources below for free on elevateU, including Edmondson’s new book, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.  

Free elevateU Resources Featuring Dr. Edmondson’s Research:



Instructor-Led Courses to Help Build Relevant Skills:

Delizonna, L., Tjan, A. K., Walker, C. A., D’Souza, S., & Renner, D. (2017, August 24). High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s How to Create It. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2017/08/high-performing-teams-need-psychological-safety-heres-how-to-create-it

Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace. (2019, January 22). Retrieved from https://hbr.org/ideacast/2019/01/creating-psychological-safety-in-the-workplace