Posted: 02 Mar. 2023 4 min. read

Barriers to Breakthrough: Why Psychological Safety May Not Be Enough

Have you ever posed a question or challenge to your team, then opened the floor for discussion and heard only the chirping of crickets in response?

Did you wonder why people didn’t speak up?

Hopefully you figured it out, or at least got them talking eventually. But think back and ask yourself, did all team members offer opinions, ideas, or questions? Did anyone remain quiet or contribute less than others? Why might that have occurred? And what might you have lost out on as a result?

When no one contributes, it may seem logical to ask what it is about the situation or environment that’s keeping people quiet. Was the request not clear? Is it not apparent that everyone is welcome to speak? Is the environment inhibiting in some other way? But when some people contribute and others don’t, it may seem equally logical to ask what’s different about the people who remain quiet. And from there, it could be a short leap to assuming that the team environment is conducive to sharing but that some team members demur because of something lacking in them. Maybe they’re not willing to take a risk, or they’re not committed to the team, or they just don’t have anything valuable to contribute.

There’s a third option though—that the situation or environment is a good fit for inspiring some people to contribute, but not so much for others. That it’s not about something lacking in those who aren’t contributing, but instead that people are encouraged or discouraged by different things, and that for some people in some environments, staying silent might sometimes be prudent. It may be that your team is currently working in ways that work for only a portion of your team members and as a result, you’re getting the best from some of them, but not others. And there’s a good chance you may be able to change that.

There are many possible ways in which the characteristics of a team or the environment of a discussion may discourage offering up opinions, ideas, or questions. One of the most commonly cited barriers is a lack of psychological safety, characterized by a belief that speaking up may lead to judgment, embarrassment, or other negative consequences. Psychological safety has been widely touted as an important factor in the performance of teams—indeed, it has been argued that it may be the most important aspect of team dynamics. And it’s typically framed at the team level, so that a team could be considered psychologically safe, unsafe, or somewhere in between.

However, our own Deloitte Greenhouse® research has previously found that some people are more likely than others to feel psychologically safe. Specifically, we’ve found differences by Business Chemistry type. Guardians are the most likely type to report they don’t feel safe, followed by Integrators (Dreamers, in particular), while Pioneers and Drivers (Commanders, in particular) are more likely to report feeling safe. So, the same team environment may feel psychologically safe to some, but not to others.

That previous study assessed how safe people may feel but did not explore how those feelings might actually impact their actions. We have now conducted a new study that addresses the extent to which a lack of psychological safety may discourage some people from contributing their opinions, ideas, or questions to a discussion. It also considers what other conditions they might find discouraging.

We surveyed 28,000 professionals working in hundreds of organizations around the world and across a variety of industries, from C-suite leaders to junior staff members.1 We asked about the conditions likely to discourage them from contributing to a group discussion. And we found some strong agreement across professionals, but as we almost always do, we also found some differences between Business Chemistry types.

Before we get to the results of the study, let’s take a momentary pause to consider why this all matters. How important is it that everyone on your team contributes?

If everyone thought in exactly the same way, then maybe it wouldn’t be that important to hear from everybody. In that case, the same ideas might be shared over and over. But let’s assume your team has at least some diversity of thought (as most teams do). That can be a real benefit. Someone who thinks differently from you may see things you don’t or see them from a different angle. They may think about problems and potential solutions in ways that can shift your own perspective. They might help you see when you’re wrong. Diversity of thought means we have more perspectives on a problem and also more potential solutions to consider. It can lead us to examine issues more thoroughly, articulate our thoughts more clearly, and challenge and test our own and each other’s assumptions. Ultimately, diversity can lead to higher levels of creativity and more effective problem-solving—it can facilitate breakthrough.

But none of this can happen if those differences aren’t voiced. If a team member with a different perspective doesn’t share it with the group, it’s unlikely to help others explore or shift their own thinking. If someone who sees a unique solution doesn’t suggest it, the rest of the team may never think of it. When an individual disagrees but does not say so, they won’t challenge the team to examine their assumptions or clarify their arguments. Diversity unexpressed is potential unrealized.

So, what then might keep people from contributing? On to the results of our new study. We assessed 55 potential deterrents, which can be grouped into five categories. Spoiler alert: We found that psychological safety, while important, was reported to be overall less important than the other categories of conditions we explored. First, we’ll share the top 10 individual potential deterrents and then a summary of findings related to each category.

That’s a lot of people who might be discouraged from contributing for a lot of different reasons. And there are so many more to come! Read on for our findings related to the five categories…

Safety: Concern about negative consequences for me personally. We were a bit surprised to find that, overall, this is the least likely factor to inhibit sharing of opinions, questions, and ideas. However, it does show the greatest differences between Business Chemistry types. Just over half of respondents said they might be discouraged from contributing if it feels risky, if they’re afraid of making a mistake, or if they think someone might judge them or react negatively. Most discouraging in this category is a concern about making someone else feel criticized (identified by 69% of respondents). Overall, Guardians and Integrators (especially Dreamers) are most likely to be deterred by a lack of safety, and differences here are considerable. For example, while 70% of Dreamers report that concerns about being judged may curb their contributions, only 32% of Commanders report the same.

Teams can create environments that feel safer for idea generation by asking people to silence their cynic and embrace making a mess rather than trying to be perfect. Then, people can be encouraged to check their own personal edge to take a risk and share an opinion, idea, or question even if they’re not sure about it.

Value: Perceptions of how valuable my contributions are. In general, these issues are the most likely to discourage participation, with Guardians and Integrators (especially Dreamers) again feeling most inhibited. More than 80% of respondents overall said they may not contribute if they feel they don’t have anything valuable to add, don’t know much about the issue being discussed, or don’t have enough background information or data to thoughtfully contribute. More than 70% added that if they haven’t had an opportunity to think through or prepare for the discussion, or aren’t sure how to articulate their opinion, idea, or question, they may not offer anything up. And, if they aren’t sure their input is welcome, don’t think others will understand what they have to say, or are unsure if their opinion, idea, or question is a good one, more than 50% of respondents indicated they may stay silent. Moreover, if they believe someone else is an expert on the issue being discussed or someone has already offered up what they would have contributed, a similar number would hesitate to speak.

These findings suggest that teams who truly want everyone’s contributions may need to work toward better preparing people for discussions and stripping away and then redefining assumptions about what’s a valuable contribution. Especially when brainstorming, an idea posed by a novice can be as valuable as one posed by a seasoned expert.

Impact: Perceived importance of the topic being discussed and a sense that the discussion matters. These issues came in just behind value in terms of their potential to interfere with contributing, and while they showed the smallest differences between types, this time it was Pioneers and Drivers (especially Scientists) who identified more potential for these issues to impede their joining in. Most discouraging—identified as deterrents by more than 80% of respondents—is lack of interest in the topic or a discussion gone on too long. But there are many other impact-related obstacles to full participation, including a sense that the issue being discussed isn’t important, being distracted by other things, feeling that one’s time and energy are better spent elsewhere, or thinking that the discussion is unfocused or won’t make a difference (each identified by about 75% of respondents). Adding to that, around 70% said their participation will likely be dampened if it feels like a decision has already been made or the right people aren’t in the room for the discussion. And plain old boredom can keep many people from engaging, especially Pioneers and Scientists, 73% of whom cited this barrier.

Just because you ask people to contribute doesn’t mean they will. It’s important to grab their attention, pique their interest, and show them why the discussion, and their contribution, matters. Dialing up the drama is one way to do so.

Dynamics: How people in the room are interacting with one another. Listening is key—88% of respondents suggested contributing is daunting if people aren’t listening to each other, and near as many noted they’d be more reluctant to speak if lots of people are talking at once or are not speaking the truth. More than two-thirds said their desire to participate may be suppressed if the atmosphere is tense or someone is being combative. As with safety and value, these issues were more challenging for Guardians and Integrators (especially Dreamers), but differences here were quite small. Team dynamics can be a widespread challenge.

Creating the kind of team dynamics that are more conducive to getting everyone involved means setting a tone that’s not playing “nice”—instead being honest and forthright—but also not antagonistic, while making space for those who are more disinclined to speak.

Belonging: A sense that I can be myself and am part of the group. Eighty percent of respondents indicated their engagement may be inhibited if they don’t trust those who are present, while three-quarters suggested they might not participate if they don’t believe it’s okay to be themselves, or they don’t feel a sense of belonging or commitment to the group. More than half may be discouraged if they aren’t comfortable with the others present or think what they have to say might make others feel they don’t fit in with the group. Guardians and Integrators (especially Dreamers) again tend to be the most challenged here.

Particularly when working with a really diverse team (what we affectionately refer to as a motley crew), building belonging can mean getting to know each other personally—getting real—and emphasizing how important each person’s unique contributions are.

When it comes to getting everyone on your team to offer up opinions, ask questions, and contribute ideas, psychological safety is important—especially for some—but it may not be enough. Even a team that feels safe will likely miss out on what many have to offer if people question the impact of the discussion or the value of their own contributions, if they don’t feel a sense of belonging, or if team dynamics are getting in the way. Guardians and Integrators are most likely to be discouraged and by the widest variety of deterrents, but even Pioneers and Drivers cite many reasons they might stay silent. And you need everyone’s perspectives if you’re to tap into the full depth and breadth of diversity on your team. So look beyond psychological safety to create a team environment where more people are inclined to contribute.

1 Between September 2019 and March 2020, and then again between September 2020 and July 2021, all respondents who completed the online Business Chemistry assessment were asked about the conditions that would discourage them from contributing in a group setting. More than 28,000 professionals from hundreds of organizations responded.

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Suzanne Vickberg (aka Dr. Suz)

Suzanne Vickberg (aka Dr. Suz)

Research Lead | Deloitte LLP

Dr. Suz is a social-personality psychologist and a leading practitioner of Deloitte’s Business Chemistry, which she uses to guide clients as they explore how their work is shaped by the mix of individuals who make up a team. Previously serving in Deloitte’s Talent organization, since 2014 she’s been coaching leaders and teams in creating cultures that enable each member to thrive and make their best contribution. Along with her Deloitte Greenhouse colleague Kim Christfort, Suzanne co-authored the book Business Chemistry: Practical Magic for Crafting Powerful Work Relationships as well as a Harvard Business Review cover feature on the same topic. She also leads the Deloitte Greenhouse research program focused on Business Chemistry and is the primary author of the Business Chemistry blog. An “unapologetic introvert” and Business Chemistry Guardian-Dreamer, you will never-the-less often find her in front of a room, a camera, or a podcast microphone speaking about Business Chemistry. Suzanne is a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate with an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business and a doctorate in Social-Personality Psychology from the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. She has lectured at Rutgers Business School and several colleges in the CUNY system, and before joining Deloitte in 2009, she gained experience in the health care and consulting fields. A mom of two teenagers, she maintains her native Minnesota roots and currently resides in New Jersey, where she volunteers for several local organizations with a focus on hunger relief.