Scattered Thoughts

Some reflections on the notion of “psychological safety” in academia

Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have been reading some recently published papers marked by some harsh rhetoric bordering on personal offence to other colleagues in the field. Something similar is happening with peer-review reports from referees with whom we are collaborating – a situation that some colleagues at other journals have told me they have experienced as well. It might be just an outcome of the pandemic, which is affecting so much our daily lives in ways that are not fully realised or processed. Yet, it made me think of a notion that I consider central to my activity as scholar, although it is mostly nurtured in the private sector: the notion of psychological safety.

Elaborated and discussed by Amy Edmondson (2018), psychological safety is the basis of an inclusive, creative, and caring work environment. Broadly speaking, it corresponds to the mindset by which every member of a working team feels free to speak their mind freely, without having to fear any consequences at either personal or professional levels. This – of course – does not imply that there are neither wrong or right answers nor bad or good decision. It just makes clear that the way by which feedbacks are given is directly related to the construction of any work environment. In turn, a positive work environment is crucial because the output of a collaborator is profoundly affected by it in terms of motivation, attachment to and caring for the business, and creativity. The latter in particular is central to academia. If any advancement of knowledge is to be found in the elaboration of different points of view and the divergent interpretations that change the way by which we look at something, then, it is evident how important a creative approach is. Yet to properly been nurtured, creativity requires a constructive, positive, and open environment – it needs psychological safety. Only in this way scholars – especially young scholars – can feel free to propose something new without fearing ostracising consequences.

In my opinion (and it is a very humble opinion, since I am not a psychologist nor a pedagogist), the construction of a psychologically safe environment in academia implies the adoption of two simple and correlated “practices” that are very well known by academics – or at least, they should be. Firstly, (1.) any feedback should always be a constructive feedback since it has to correct a weakness by instructing (i.e., making them understand, not just execute) a different point of view. This is a basic approach of teaching and, accordingly, one should expect academics to apply it constantly, with both students and colleagues. Sadly, this does not appear to be the case, at least not very often. I believe that one of the causes of this attitude is the lack of proper training of the teaching staff (and, therefore, it affects students before fellow scholars, which is even worse), but I will leave this point to another time. Secondly, (2.) when giving a feedback our mindset should be grounded on another notion, that of divergent thinking (first proposed by Guilford 1956). We should be open to consider another point of view, even the opposite stance, with an open mind. In most cases, there is no need to even mention this fundamental aspect. I know many colleagues that have humbly changed their positions after having considered things from a different point of view and I have myself done the same. However, this scientific humility is something that has to be nurtured by each one of us. The reason is simple and connected to the interpretative stratification of our work.

Let’s suppose that A elaborates an interpretation of x during their early career. A receives good feedbacks and uses the A-interpretation to read also y and z. Throughout many years, A has written very much about x, y, and z using the A-interpretation. This allows A to use it in further cases and that piece of knowledge (the A-interpretation) becomes a given of A’s reading of the tradition, as a first layer of a stratified interpretative knowledge that A uses while teaching and doing research. Now, let’s think that B proposed a radically different interpretation of z. The B-interpretation impacts not only on A’s interpretation of z, but also on the A-interpretation of y and x, changing the way in which z, y, and x are considered. Finally, let’s suppose that the B-interpretation is more valid than the A-interpretation, for it is based on more data and is more philosophically sound. And imagine what would happen if A is the referee of B’s article, the reviewer of B’s book, the respondent of B’s talk, or a member of the hiring committee of a post for which B is competing. Deontologically, we should assume that A, appreciating the work made by B, positively (i.e., without biases, whatever A’s final decision is) evaluates B’s interpretation. However, why should A do so, considering that B’s interpretation corresponds to the weakening of the work that A has done during the past decades? We tend to trust personal ethics in this, and we should. To that end, however, it is necessary for A – for all As – to preliminarily understand the transitional status of any interpretation and that interpretations and theories are not absolutely right only because they have been accepted now or in the past. This corresponds to practicing divergent thinking, to open our perspective to alternative readings without any unjustified pretension to hold preliminarily the truth about that.

I truly believe that a conjunction of these two basic practices – giving constructive feedbacks and nurturing divergent thinking – can help us constructing a better academia marked by openness, inclusivity, and, crucially, focused on the advancement of knowledge. It allows to correct mistakes and misinterpretations in a positive way, fostering a constant-learning attitude in everyone, from PhD students to full professors. It leads to sounder, steadier theories and interpretations, whose evaluation is grounded on a consideration of opposed readings and points of view. It requires us to become reflective practitioners in our work as researchers and teachers. And it creates a global work environment in which everyone feels safe to speculate and interpret, create and recreate, without biases.