Psychological Safety: a competitive advantage for organizations. Diane Fryman interviews Kenneth Nowack



Dr. Kenneth M. Nowack is a licensed psychologist and President/Chief Research Officer of Envisia Learning, Inc., he serves on the consortium of research on Emotional Intelligence and he is a business partner of PTS for more than 15 years.  PTS uses the tools developed by Envisia Learning across sectors from the United Nations to Banking and Consulting service to improve performance management and inclusive leadership.

Diane Fryman, CEO of PTS, caught up with Dr. Nowack to talk about the importance of psychological safety in organizations because of his expertise on the topic.

What is Psychological Safety and how is it different from Interpersonal Trust

Diane:  Welcome Ken, here today we have the huge opportunity to talk about psychological safety: could you please tell us what psychological safety is and how it is different from interpersonal trust?

Ken: Good morning, Diane, thanks, I’ll explain.

It’s a current need, near and dear to everyone with Covid and remote work teams, to try and make sure people have a voice and can participate. Me and my colleague, as well as yours, Paul Zak (Professor of Economic Sciences, Psychology & Management
Director), looked at the area of safety and trust through a neuroscience lens and to answer your question I need to give you a little bit of a background on two things.


Interpersonal trust is a passive act, the extent to which “I empower you”: I assume that you have the right skill set and experience to act on my behalf. Think about investment bankers that might be managing your portfolio: we want to believe they know what they’re doing, we want to trust them.

Psychological safety is the extent to which I feel free and genuine because you won’t judge me, you won’t evaluate, bully or critique me.

Google Project Aristotle found that what really matters for team effectiveness is less about who is on the team, and more about how the team worked together. Where there was psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks and confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake or offering a new idea. This is a competitive advantage for organizations that invest in psychological safety because it allows to challenge the status quo: psychological safety brings innovation.

Why High-Performing and Successful Teams require Psychological Safety?

Diane: It seems to be extremely high correlation between having psychological safety in the organization and making sure that the team is successful and performing well on a continuous basis, is this correct?

Ken: Well, Psychological safety and interpersonal trust may not guarantee high productivity or physical health but it’s a necessary condition.

Anyway, even if we cannot show causality, with our colleague Dr. Paul Zak, we’ve found in psychologically safe and high trust cultures a health benefit of people feeling more engaged, reporting less job burnout, being more innovative and creative: organizations, teams and leaders that facilitate safety and high trust, has for sure some return on investment.

Diane: I’m sure it is. And please, Ken, since we work a lot with organizations and their teams could you please tell us why does an effective teamwork require psychological safety?

Ken:  Well, one of the biases that we know that exists in human level is called the “similarity bias” and it occurs because humans are highly motivated to see themselves and those who are similar in a favorable light. That’s why we instinctively create “in groups”: groups that we feel safe with; and “out groups”: groups that are threatening to us. But this is just a bias and to overcome it we need to find common ground with people who appear different. Teams need psychological safety to foster a sense that everybody has an equal voice.

How can we measure Psychological Safety within the Organization?

Diane: This is true: we’re much more caring and empathetic about those that are part of our team versus those that are not. So, given the importance of psychological safety, how is there a way that we can measure it within the organization?

Ken: There are four intuitive factors that we use subjectively when we interact with others to determine trustworthiness, trust and safety:

  • Capability: people believe you have the appropriate knowledge and skills
  • Consistency: people believe you will act in a predictable and reliable manner
  • Caringness: people believe you are on their side
  • Candor: people believe you will act with honesty and integrity

In partnering with Paul, we created a tool, NeuroteamView, to measure those four things as a foundation for effective teams: research supports that lack of any one of those four it’s impairment for teams to function.

We also consider one aspect of emotional intelligence which is social awareness: a person’s ability to consider and empathize with others and apply that understanding to interactions with them. If I can’t practice social awareness, I can’t be effective as a team member. This is what we measure with our tool, which is a 180 or 360 feedback, in order to have a more accurate way of judging how behavior is actually perceived.

Diane: Thank you so much Ken, it’s been a fantastic interview.


Ken: Big hug virtually and stay well!



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