The Dangerous World of Psychological Safety, part 1

The role of fear

“Psychological safety is not the same as a safe space. It is not a space where you will always feel comfortable and not have your views challenged. It is almost the opposite. It’s a brave space…” — Amy Edmondson


The father of employee engagement, William Khan, defined psychological safety as “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career.”1

The key to understanding psychological safety is understanding fear. Fear is the emotion that undermines collaboration and destroys team performance. It is what prevents us from entering a state of open-mindedness and learning, a state that is crucial for maximising collective intelligence and tackling complex problems.

To really understand fear we need to realise that it is not some trivial weakness, something to ‘get over’. Rather, it is a powerful primal emotion that is hard-wired into all of us, an ancestral memory vital for survival. 

What is fear?

Neuroscientist and psychobiologist Jaak Panksepp (affectionally nicknamed the Rat Tickler for his research that included making rats giggle) identified seven primary emotional systems common to mammalian brains2 — SEEKING, RAGE/Anger, FEAR, LUST, CARE, PANIC/Sadness, and PLAY (capitalised to indicate specific systems). These systems comprise distinct neuroanatomies and neurochemistries and control specific behaviours. 

Importantly, when one system is activated the others shrink back. At any point in time, we have a dominant emotion steering our thoughts and actions. We can use higher neocortical functioning to overrule our natural impulses, biting our tongues when angry for example, but we cannot control our primitive emotions. They, to a large extent, control us.

In terms of team dynamics, FEAR and SEEKING are of particular interest because they drive important action tendencies3. When the SEEKING system is activated we explore the environment and learn, but when the FEAR system is activated we expend our cognitive energies trying to escape from or avoiding the sources of danger.

For collaborative work, we want maximum SEEKING and minimum FEAR.

The above table above summarises the main feelings, neurotransmitters and action tendencies associated with each system4. When our FEAR system is activated we narrow our attention, an evolved mechanism that shuts out interference from irrelevant and distracting information5. When a threat arises from within our group, submission or appeasement is the normal response; an adaption that lowers the risk of social exclusion6.

Consider what happens in the presence of hyper-masculine leaders, those that are dominating, aggressive, and ‘results-orientated’. Iron-fisted leadership was until recently glorified by highly prominent business leaders such as Jack Welch. Former employees of his reported that, “Welch conducts meetings so aggressively that people tremble. He attacks almost physically with his intellect—criticizing, demeaning, ridiculing, humiliating.” 7

This aggressive leadership style would activate the FEAR system in most people, driving submissive and appeasing behaviours. They would naturally fear speaking up or contradicting such a leader. Unfortunately, this style of leadership is still very common today.

The cat fur affect

The thing about FEAR is that once it is triggered it is hard to turn it off. It takes time to re-ignite positive emotions and behaviours. Panksepp clearly demonstrated this with his rats.

Cat fur triggers an instinctual fear response in rats. After placing some in a cage, Panksepp found that the rat’s play was completely inhibited. In the four days prior to the car fur, the rats started to play an average of 50 times in the 5-minute sessions. After the cat fur, play dropped to zero. It took three additional days for the rats to play again at all, and levels of play never returned to the pre-fur sessions after 5 days.8

Of course, different types and intensities of threats produce different severities of response, from mild anxiety to pathological stress disorders9. But the neuroscience is clear: fear overrides our positive emotions. It overrides our PLAY system that we need to socially bond, and it overrides our SEEKING system that we need to explore options, experiment with new ideas, and learn from the environment.


In order to increase psychological safety, we need to minimise the activation of our team member’s FEAR systems. However, to obtain high performance the team also needs to be accountable for meeting demanding goals. This, in itself, can be anxiety-inducing. We’ll explore this tension in the next post. 

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Image credits

Social Media: Rat via Silvia / Pixabay

Table: my slides (see notes for info source)

Rat play chart: Panksepp, Jaak. Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998

1

Kahn, William A. (1990). "Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work". Academy of Management Journal. 33 (4): 692–724. doi:10.2307/256287.

2

Davis Kenneth L., Montag Christian. Selected Principles of Pankseppian Affective Neuroscience, Frontiers in Neuroscience, 2019. https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnins.2018.01025

3

PLAY is also important for social bonding, as is CARE for nurturing each other. These will be discussed in future posts.

4

This very simplified table was adapted from this terrific lecture by Dan Cable:

5

Van Steenbergen Henk, Band Guido, Hommel Bernhard. Threat But Not Arousal Narrows Attention: Evidence from Pupil Dilation and Saccade Control. Frontiers in Psychology, volume 2,2011. https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00281

6

Isaac M. Marks, Randolph M. Nesse. Fear and fitness: An evolutionary analysis of anxiety disorders, Ethology and Sociobiology, Volume 15, Issues 5–6, 1994. https://doi.org/10.1016/0162-3095(94)90002-7

7

O'Toole, J., Bennis, W., A Culture of Candor, Harvard Business Review, June 2009. https://hbr.org/2009/06/a-culture-of-candor

8

Cable, Dan. A Whiff of Cat Fur. Huffington Post, Nov 2017. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/a-whiff-of-cat-fur_b_12744988

9

Steimer T. The biology of fear- and anxiety-related behaviors. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2002;4(3):231-249. doi:10.31887/DCNS.2002.4.3/tsteimer