About six years ago, a group of human resource specialists at Google set out to understand the key factors that make Google teams effective. Over two years they conducted 200+ interviews with their employees and looked at more than 250 attributes across more than 180 active google teams. What they found was that the characteristics, abilities, or the mix of skills of individuals on a particular team mattered less than they thought it might. What mattered the most was not who was on the team, but how team members interacted with each other. Furthermore, of the interpersonal dynamics that were observed within successful teams, far and away the most important one was psychological safety.

Amy Edmondson, from Harvard Business School, first coined the term psychological safety to refer to a shared belief that one’s work environment or team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. This means that people can feel safe to make mistakes, to launch bold but potentially flawed ideas, to fail at things, and to be authentic about who they really are without fear of negative consequences for their self-image, status, or career. Underlying this feeling of safety is a strong sense of feeling accepted and respected.

Ever since Google uncovered the critical contribution of psychological safety in building effective teams, it has become the new buzz word for consultants, coaches, and human resource specialists aiming to help organizations build better performance cultures. Yet, while we know psychological safety is important, our understanding of how to build it remains relatively nascent.

An even greater challenge is to understand how to build psychological safety when it comes to the domain of ethics. Creating a culture where people can feel comfortable to be told their risky ideas about processes or products are not viable is one thing, but when it comes to having a psychologically safe conversation around ethical issues…well that tends to be a whole different kettle of fish.

We are incredibly sensitive to having our behaviour questioned on ethical grounds, and this makes open and honest conversations about such issues especially difficult. Yet, given we are all prone to blindspots and biases in the ethical domain (just as much, and perhaps even more so, than we are in any other domain of human judgement and decision-making) we need others to provide honest and open feedback to keep us on track, and we need to feel that we can provide this service to our colleagues in turn.

Creating psychological safety around ethical issues is fundamental to effective non-financial risk management within modern organizations, so what can be done to achieve this?

The role of behavioural ethics

Research within the field of behavioural ethics provides critical insight into what it means to be human in the ethical domain. Put simply, it shows us the myriad ways that our ethical judgement is clouded by non-rational factors, such as our emotions, the cultures we live and work in, and our basic motivation to meet our own needs, and therefore to be a little self-serving in our ethical decision-making and behaviour. This approach to understanding ethical behaviour and it causes, provides three key points that can help to build psychological safety around ethical issues in the workplace.

We all get it wrong sometimes. Moral humility is the recognition is that we all ethically fallible. Whether it be due to our inability to see our own motivations clearly, or our tendency to rationalize or justify behaviour that serves our needs, we all sometimes suffer a gap between our personal values and our behaviour. If we are going to build a culture where ethical issues can be more comfortably addressed, it needs to start with a good dose of self-awareness.

Focus on behaviour not character. The fundamental attribution error is the human tendency to attribute a person’s actions to their underlying character, rather than (more accurately) to the complex web of situational and contextual factors that often play a critical role. Behavioural ethics shows us there are many factors (e.g., even the time of day) that can shape decision-making and behaviour in ways that are often outside of conscious awareness. These insights help us to avoid the fundamental attribution error and focus on behaviour rather than character when addressing ethical issues. Using this approach also avoids building defensiveness and allows behavioural issues to be addressed without people feeling judged by others.

Assume ignorance not malice. The fact is that very few people have malicious intent. There are a few, and we need to wary of these people. Yet, by and large most people act more out of ignorance rather than malice. Behavioural ethics shows us the numerous blindspots and biases that people suffer from, allowing us to side-step our often over-active tendency to assume malice where none exists and to draw on our empathy instead.

While behavioural ethics can help us to take a more insightful, self-aware, and less judgemental approach to resolving ethical issues in the workplace, it can also provide the building blocks for psychological safety more broadly. Being humble and seeking to understand rather than judge and react, can lead people to feel accepted and respected in their work environments – both of which are key ingredients, not only for keeping ethical behaviour in check, but for the kind of risk taking that is necessary for creativity, innovation and performance.

If you are interested in creating an ethical culture in your workplace and developing ‘speak up’ capabilities across all staff, please contact brock@psysafe.com.au or david@psysafe.com.au (see www.psysafe.com.au for more details)

Professor Brock Bastian


Professor Brock Bastian is an internationally acclaimed researcher, author, speaker, who has spent the last 20 years seeking to understand the various social and cultural factors that impact on mental health, wellbeing, and decision-making.

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