Psychological Safety

OKRs, Information Flow & Psychological Safety

A study on ‘information flow’ in organisations by Ron Westrum found that information flow was a prime variable in creating safety, and was also an indicator of how well an organisation is functioning, how well people are cooperating, and how effective their work is likely to be.

It will not be a surprise that organizational performance was found to be better when information that is relevant, timely, and actionable can flow freely around a company and teams can collaborate effectively.

The research characterise three types of organization:

Pathological organizations

Pathological organizations are characterized by large amounts of fear and threat. People often hoard information or withhold it for political reasons, or distort it to make themselves look better.

Bureaucratic organizations

Bureaucratic organizations protect departments. Those in the department want to maintain their ‘‘turf,’’ insist on their own rules, and generally do things by the book—their book.

Generative organizations

Generative organizations focus on the mission. How do we accomplish our goal? Everything is subordinated to good per-formance, to doing what we are supposed to do.

A generative organization culture supports Information Flow for four reasons.

  1. There is trust which in turn supports cooperation – information is not going to be used as a commodity or weapon.
  2. The mission is emphasised which allows people to put aside their personal and departmental issues. The mission matters above everything else.
  3. There is a ‘‘level playing field,’’ and hierarchy plays less of a role and is de-emphasized because most of the problems of getting information to flow up hierarchies disappear.
  4. Departmental competition does not exist so information can flow across internal boundaries.


Low co-operation

Messengers shot

Responsibilities shirked

Bridging discouraged

Failure leads to scapegoating

Novelty crushed


Modest co-operation

Messengers neglected

Narrow responsibilities

Bridging tolerated

Failure leads to justice

Novelty leads to problems


High co-operation

Messengers trained

Risks are shared

Bridging encouraged

Failure leads to inquiry

Novelty implemented

Source: Using the Westrum typology to measure culture

OKRs put an emphasis on transparency, shared risk, departmental and cross-functional teams, frequent conversations, and learning via retrospectives. This makes the OKR framework and OKR software an obvious fit for generative Organizations, plus those that aspire to move towards being more generative.

OKRs are an obvious fir for generative organizations


Psychological Safety

Google is not just the most famous company to adopt OKRs, they are also responsible for reinforcing the link between Psychological Safety and team performance. Over a two year period Google conducted over 200 interviews with employees and looked at more than 250 workplace performance attributes in over 180 different Google teams.

What they found was “who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions.”

The 5 attributes that Googles best performing had were:

Psychological safety
Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?

Can we count on each other to do high quality work on time?

Structure & clarity
Are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?

Meaning of work
Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?

Impact of work
Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?

Source: The five keys to a successful Google team

What is Psychological Safety?

Psychological Safety is a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. 

Its impact on team performance was first discovered by Amy Edmondson and published in her paper Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams.

Psychological Safety is a belief that for there to be excellence in the workplace it needs to be safe to speak up. Employees that feel safe know that their voice is being heard and valued. They are not holding back or being nice for being nice sake. They feel that it is safe to be honest and direct, and occasionally have conflict is normal and not avoided.

If you have Psychological Safety present you will have a climate where employees can freely speak up, share ideas, concerns, questions or share mistakes and problems. Employees are not worried or even scared about how people think. They don’t fear how what they are going to say will be received by their team.


Symptoms of low levels of Psychological Safety

Here are some signs and symptoms that your employees don’t feel psychologically safe:

  • Team members do not ask many questions during meetings.
  • Team members don’s share or own up to mistakes or blame others.
  • There are few or no difficult conversations.
  • There are dangerous ‘hot-button’ topics and these are avoided.
  • Leaders / managers dominate meeting discussions.
  • Feedback is not openly and frequently given or requested.
  • Colleagues are not asking one another for help when they need it.
  • There is rarely any conflict, disagreements or differing points of view.


OKRs and Psychological Safety

There is a clear overlap between generative organisations that are characterised by effective ‘information flow’ and a need for psychological safety in teams.

Adopting Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) is about more than using a specific goal format. OKRs are about adopting a way of working that aligns with generative organisational, agile working and safe company culture. With OKRs:

  • The mission and committed goals need to come first.
  • It should be safe to speak up, discuss, debate and even argue about which goals matter most.
  • It needs to be safe to share ideas and prioritise activities that will serve the committed goals above all else.
  • It needs to be safe to openly share goals, progress, plans, priorities, and problems not just in your team, but with everyone, without fear.
  • It needs to be safe to share mistakes and learn from them.
  • And of course, it needs to be safe to be ambitious, fail and learn.

This is why OKRs are as much about transforming culture, and establishing healthy workplace behaviours and habits, as embedding and system and tool for managing goals.


Useful further reading

This is a really important and interesting topic that can and will have a profound impact on culture and performance – as well as overall performance management. Here’s further information that may help you.