Psychological Safety

Psychological safety is defined as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” Amy Edmondson, a Research Professor at Harvard University, coined the term psychological safety in 1999 and it has since become an important part of a guide’s lexicon in the adventure travel realm. A psychologically safe group atmosphere is important because it influences many aspects of an outdoor experience, including everyone’s full participation, enjoyment, and physical safety. 

Group social and cultural dynamics can have profound influence on the outcomes of outdoor activities. In a trusting, supportive, and respectful environment, group members are free to be themselves, to try new things, to push beyond their physical and emotional comfort zone, to share ideas and concerns, and to learn from one another. Good decision-making, sound risk management, and even everyone’s enjoyment and success depends heavily on social and cultural norms. In large part, it is the nurturing of a psychologically safe atmosphere that makes this all possible. 

Aside from her formal definition above, Amy Edmondson usefully describes psychological safety from an individual perspective: “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.” This is a powerful belief for outdoor recreators. Being free from negative emotional consequences such as ridicule, blame, shame, threats, contempt, or disdain allows a person to unreservedly engage in every aspect of a group activity – from casual conversations to decision-making to opportunities for learning, partaking in new experiences, and personal growth. It enables each team member to feel empowered at all times. 

To demonstrate the importance of psychological safety, we can turn to examples where it was absent: Imagine a rock-climbing outing where one partner chooses not to try a difficult climb for fear of failure and embarrassment. Picture a backcountry skier who did not feel comfortable expressing concern to a more experienced team member before they dropped in and triggered an avalanche. Visualize a group of cyclists whose collective machismo and individual fears of being perceived as weak causes one to push too hard for too long before succumbing to dehydration and heat stroke on a summer’s day.

Below we’ll take a closer look at the beneficial outcomes of psychological safety, and provide tips for fostering a psychologically safe culture in your own recreation groups. 

Support

In order to participate fully, each group member must be certain that they will be met with support at all times and in every situation encountered. There is an amount of bravery and courage that is coupled with participating in new activities or stretching one’s physical and emotional boundaries. Fear of failure and humiliation is natural and is powerful enough to hinder people from putting themselves out there. Yet, personal growth blossoms out of challenging situations, especially when it is accompanied by perceived or moderate risk and success is not guaranteed. A psychologically safe atmosphere opens the door to everyone’s participation in new or challenging experiences. 

Learning

Opportunities for learning are enhanced when people feel psychologically safe. Group members often like to gain exposure to new ideas and skills. A willingness to be vulnerable is necessary for that to happen. This comes in the form of asking questions and seeking feedback – essentially admitting that they are uninformed, inexperienced, and lack expertise with a subject or skill. In this case, a psychologically safe environment breaks down roadblocks like fear of judgment, contempt, derision, and ridicule. Meet those with a curious mind where they are at, and help them to learn and improve themselves as contributing members of the team. 

Sharing

A psychological safety atmosphere fosters a welcoming space for anyone’s opinions, ideas, and feedback to be freely shared. Teams are stronger when everyone participates. Creativity and innovation flourish. Better decisions are made, and – very importantly – those decisions often result in more effective risk management and safety. It can be intimidating for some people to speak up though, especially when they feel diminished by criticism, contempt, or mockery. Everyone deserves to feel respected as a contributing member of the team. Listen to your peers, ask them questions, and be willing to be questioned yourself. We all have something to gain from each other in group settings. 

It is easily argued that psychological safety enhances a variety of outdoor recreation outcomes for the better. But how can you best foster a psychologically safe atmosphere within your own recreational groups? Here are a few ideas:

  • Be welcoming, supportive, and respectful of each group member
  • Give everyone a voice by inviting them into conversations and seeking their input
  • Recognize each group member and acknowledge their talents and contributions
  • Appreciate everyone’s personal limitations and be willing to adapt a plan accordingly
  • Embrace your own vulnerability by acknowledging your limitations and fallibility
  • Treat everyone fairly and equally
  • Always keep it positive and don’t tolerate poor behavior by others

Psychological safety is a powerful too that every outdoor recreator should recognize and cultivate. There are myriad benefits and it’s worth making the effort to look after each other out there. 


Colby Brokvist is a professional guide who leads worldwide expeditions for some of the most acclaimed companies in adventure travel. When not working in far-flung destinations, he designs and facilitates guide training programs and is the Chair of the Polar Tourism Guides Association. His upcoming book “The Handbook for Professional Guides” is due out in winter/spring of 2022.

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