Psychological Safety Part 1: Introduction

October 27, 2021

Psychological safety is intrinsic to the success of an organization. The current view of psychological safety has been simplified in popular literature to make it easier to digest. This simplification has greatly limited its impact as psychological safety addresses two very complex systems, human relationships, and communication. In this series, I will: 

  1. Address the current definition of psychological safety and offer my model
  2. Explore people’s needs, which can either be threatened or rewarded 
  3. Map out how to use this model to understand our reactions to real and imagined events
  4. Demonstrate when to use the model for predicting, responding, and repairing


What Psychological Safety Is Not


The best place to start is to address what psychological safety is not. The current view I commonly see is that psychological safety is simply making an environment where it is safe to fail; make it so people can take risks and not feel like there will be a severe threat of reprisal. While this is an aspect of it, there are many threats this attitude fails to account for. There needs to be a more holistic view of what truly fosters psychological safety. We have to become comfortable with the fact that psychological safety is quite complex because, at its core, it is all about how people interact with each other, something that permeates everything an individual does within an organization.


What Psychological Safety Is


While we’ll get into the science behind this in later parts, it is key to know that the brain doesn't understand the difference between physical and psychological threats. To the brain, a punch to the face feels the same as a bad performance review because the limbic system struggles to differentiate the two. So, for people cultivating organizations, creating psychological safety means creating the conditions for people to feel safe across various threats.


To create these conditions, you have to have insight into the various structures, relationships, and communication channels in an organization. One way to gain that insight is through a tried and true method found in psychology: models. Specifically, models that help us look at the human condition from multiple angles and give us an idea of how to take action and mediate certain conditions. The model I’m about to introduce addresses the needs of individuals within an organization and the conditions within which to foster them.


The AEIOU Model

These are the five facets of psychological safety, the kinds of things that people need to feel safe which can either be threatened or rewarded. In a nutshell, my brain feels better when I have a sense of AEIOU:

  • Authority: I have something unique and meaningful to contribute.
  • Equity: I am treated the same as everyone else.
  • Inclusion: I feel like part of the team, not an outsider.
  • Ownership: I have control over my destiny.
  • Understanding: I can easily predict what is likely to happen next.


How to Use the Model

Psychological safety is all about relationships, your relationship to yourself and others. You can use the model to design a system to have the optimal configuration for everyone involved.

Specifically, you can use the model to address: 

  • Yourself and your reaction to an event.
  • Someone else's reaction to an event. 
  • Organizational reaction to an event.


When to Use the Model

Finally, there are the three states or times when you would use the model.

So you can use it: 

  • Before, as a predictive method like when I'm about to do or say something.
  • During, to recover from an action that stepped on someone's psychological toes.
  • After, to repair if you were unable to recover in the moment.


In the next part, we will dive more into the AEIOU Model and begin to understand the why behind the need to feel safe. We will explore the five needs and the various ways they are either threatened or rewarded. 

- Stephen Starkey