Bullying in Today's Workplaces: The Need for Psychological Safety (Part 1)

Author: Britt Andreatta
Posted On: October 12, 2018

October is National Bullying Prevention Month and while most people think about bullying in schools (a very worthy thing to focus on), many don’t realize that it’s also a big issue in today’s workplaces. In fact, according to research by Dr. Judy Blando, 75 percent of workers have been affected by workplace bullying, either as a target or a witness.

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), “workplace bullying” is repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is

  1. threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, or
  2. work interference (sabotage) that prevents work from getting done, or
  3. verbal abuse.

It is characterized by regular repetition, ongoing duration, escalation with increasing aggression, intent to harm, and disparity in power.

The targets of the bullying are often the top performers, who bullies presumably find threatening. The report states, “WBI research findings and conversations with thousands of targets have confirmed that targets appear to be the veteran and most skilled person in the group.” Alarmingly,

workplace bullying is four times more common than either sexual harassment or racial discrimination on the job.

 In their national survey, WBI found that 27 percent of employees had been victims of workplace bullying, 21 percent had witnessed bullying happen in their workplace, and another 23 percent was aware it was happening.

Technology and social media have made it possible for bullying to expand beyond the hours at work to torment people 24/7. And of course, many of us experienced bullying as children and are likely still carrying the scars of those experiences.


Think about how you can take action this month to reduce bullying at your workplace in your neighborhood. Check out these valuable resources for ideas and action steps:

- Workplace Bullying Institute 

- Not In Our Town 

- Stop Bullying

- Stomp Out Bullying

Needless to say, bullying suppresses the potential of many talented people, which also harms the organizations they work for. In my research, I focus on what brings out the best in people at work. In my book, Wired to Connect, I explored the brain science of teams because so much of today’s work is being done by teams.

Peak Performing Teams in the Workplace

One of the biggest differentiators of peak performing teams is that they have a psychological safety. It is not the mere absence of intimidation, harassment or bullying. Harvard’s Dr. Amy Edmondson discovered this concept and her research showed that it’s what creates the climate for teams to do their best work. She defines psychological safety as, “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. It is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.” You can learn more by watching her TEDx talk or her course on LinkedIn Learning/Lynda.com.

The success of the group and the larger organization often depend on people’s ability to speak up, noting potential threats to the group’s or organization’s success. In fact, in Edmondson’s study, the highest-performing teams also had the highest reporting rates for errors. This might seem paradoxical but it’s actually the sign of a very healthy team. When people feel safe enough to mention their errors it means they are also holding themselves accountable, and the whole group benefits from learning from the experience, which supports the team’s success. In addition, when errors are acknowledged, they can be addressed and fixed, rather than ignored to fester into bigger problems later.

Yet, the reality is that many people stay quiet for fear of being embarrassed, rejected, or punished. If you review recent headlines it’s likely you will find stories where someone stayed silent and the consequences were devastating or even fatal. In the investigation following the Columbia Shuttle disaster, it became clear that NASA harbored a culture where employees did not feel comfortable raising concerns to their supervisors (Edmondson features court transcripts in her book Teaming). This type of unhealthy team can be found in workplaces of all kinds from operating rooms to boardrooms.

For this reason, psychological safety is especially important— I would argue crucial—for all teams but especially those operating in high levels of uncertainty and whose members are interdependent.

Benefits of Psychological Safety

Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit, detailed the significance of psychological safety in his 2016 article for the New York Times. He recounts the findings from Google’s Project Aristotle, a massive global study of their teams and what distinguishes the best from the average and poor. They replicated Edmondson’s findings, discovering that

psychological safety was more important than any other factor

including the quality or performance level of the individual members. Specifically, they discovered that the best teams did two things: they engaged with each other in a consistent practice of empathy, and ensured that every member was heard. This went beyond inviting people to share their thoughts, to actively seeking out every member’s contributions.

Dr. Edmondson calls this behavior “teaming,” a different way of engaging with each other that enables and empowers teams to do their best work, with the help of strong leadership. I like that it moves the word team from being a noun to a verb, something that every member participates in.

In addition, Edmondson notes that the leader must actively create psychological safety because their position of power or status naturally suppresses a group’s ability to speak up. Effective leaders take intentional steps to invite opinions, ideas, challenges, and critiques.

Creating Psychological Safety

When training team leaders and managers I emphasize that the ability to create psychological safety is the most important skill they need to have. Yet most people don’t even know what it is, let alone how to create it. And we certainly are not measuring teams or their leaders for their efforts in this area. But we should.

It’s important to note that psychological safety is not about being universally liked by others, or protected from opinions or beliefs that you find uncomfortable. Again, Edmondson’s definition defines psychological safety as “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. It is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” In other words, the group won’t penalize someone for speaking up. Period. They might still disagree and might find what others say incredibly uncomfortable, but a healthy team welcomes the input and feedback because it might just be the game changer for success.

To continue Edmondson’s definition of psychological safety, “It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.” Again, there is nothing here about being liked or popular—it’s about respecting and trusting people at work, which is about finding value in what they contribute to the group’s efforts and being able to count on them because they are reliable.

Together, we must all take responsibility for creating workplaces that not only have zero tolerance for bullying and harassment, but that create the environment for us all to do our best work.

Learn more about the link between bullying and substance abuse with this guide by Keith Prance.

This was an excerpt from my book Wired to Connect: the brain science of teams and a new model for creating collaboration and inclusion
Get Britt’s tips and strategies to rise to your potential.
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