The Dangerous World of Psychological Safety, part 2

14 October

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." — Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


To create brave spaces, spaces that foster constructive criticism and dissent, the fear of confrontation needs to be overcome by all team members. Only by doing so will teams enter what Amy Edmondson calls the learning zone — the zone in which high-performing teams thrive.



Unfortunately, however, many of us are deeply conditioned to avoid confrontation. When it comes to voicing disagreement with popular ideas, pointing out uncomfortable problems, calling out elephants in rooms, holding others accountable for broken commitments, or directly addressing unacceptable behaviour, many people choose to remain silent. In doing so, they help perpetuate unproductive norms.


Pavlovian conditioning

We are all subject to Pavlovian conditioning. During my primary school years, I was bounced from Australia to South Africa and back again. When I was asked to read something aloud in class, the South African kids hooted in laughter at my accent. When I returned back to Australia, the same thing happened when I pronounced a word in a South African dialect. I soon developed a strong association between public speaking and humiliation, so I actively avoided it during high school and university. 

In a similar way, many of us have Pavlovian associations with conflict and confrontation. Something that happened in our past triggers a fear response. During that fear response, our SEEKING system, responsible for exploration and learning, shrink back, as discussed in the previous post. However, the fear of speaking up is not innate. It is, like most fears, learned.


Fear extinction

In psychology, conquering conditioned fear is referred to as fear extinction. In extinction, we don't erase our fears; rather, we learn not to fear. We learn how to override it. And this is what is required of members of high-performing teams.

Exposing people in a safe and systematic way to the things they fear and avoid will usually enable fear extinction1. This short video shows how exposure can help people overcome their spider phobia in just a few hours: Treating Arachnophobia.

In my early thirties, when my work required me to speak on stage at tech conferences, I learned through exposure to override my fear. Initially, it was uncomfortable. My first talks were not pretty, but after several public appearances, my phobia dissipated. My mind stopped associating public speaking with humiliation. Now, I highly enjoy it.


Good facilitation and leadership

For timid teams to transform into fearless teams, good facilitation and leadership are required. During meetings, the facilitator or team leader2 needs to develop a sense of each member’s level of anxiety around confrontation and conflict and learn to expose them to it at a level they are ready for. This is achieved through an artful balance of conflict orchestration and safety creation. With frequent enough exposure, most people will overcome their anxieties. 

This suggests that leaders and facilitators need to play the role that a psychologist does during exposure therapy. Indeed, they do.

This opens the door to important discussions about 21st Century leadership, which we will commence shortly. 


Posted by John Dobbin.
Post Bureaucracy



Image credits:

Zones matrix: Adapted from Amy Edmondson’s TEDx Talk: Building a psychologically safe workplace


References and notes:

1. Raeder, F., Merz, C.J., Margraf, J. et al. The association between fear extinction, the ability to accomplish exposure and exposure therapy outcome in specific phobia. Sci Rep 10, 4288 (2020). 

2. Not necessarily formal roles.

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