The Effects of Psychological Safety on Employee Voice Behavior. An Overview of the Current State of Research

Literature Review, 2021

13 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Defining Psychological Safety

3. Current State of Research
3.1 Direct Effects of Psychological Safety
3.2 Indirect Effects of Psychological Safety

4. Future Directions for Psychological Safety Research

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

In today’s business environment, organizations must continuously learn, innovate, and change to improve organizational functioning (Frazier et al., 2017). To do so, organizations rely on their employees to express their ideas, make suggestions for improvement, and share their knowledge on work-related issues (Edmondson & Lei, 2014). Such proactive employee behaviors are critical to achieving organizational goals yet are not always practiced by employees (Xu et al., 2019). Employees might fear negative consequences when voicing concerns and new ideas and therefore not engage in voice, which is detrimental to organizational learning (Willits & Franco-Watkins, 2021). To avoid such risks to organizations, research identifies psychological safety as a key factor. Employees’ willingness to speak up is affected by how psychologically safe they perceive their work environment to be (Newman et al., 2017). As work relationships become more complex and require collaboration, psychological safety is also likely to remain important in understanding voice behavior (Edmondson & Lei, 2014). Therefore, this paper provides an overview of the current state of research on the relationship between psychological safety and employee voice. As psychological safety is mostly examined at the team level, this review aims to contribute to the literature on individual-level outcomes of psychological safety.

First, this review defines and conceptualizes psychological safety as an individual phenomenon. Second, it reviews and integrates prior academic work on the main and mediating effects of psychological safety on employee voice behavior. Last, it points out future directions for psychological safety research.

2. Defining Psychological Safety

According to Kahn (1990), psychological safety is the ability to act and be oneself in the workplace without fearing negative consequences. While Kahn (1990) defines it as an individual-level construct, Edmondson (1999) later conceptualizes psychological safety on the group level. He describes psychological safety as a shared belief among individuals about whether the work environment is safe to engage in risk-taking behaviors (Edmondson, 1999). In a psychologically safe climate, employees believe that they will not be rejected by other organizational members for expressing themselves or admitting mistakes (Liang et al., 2012). Across multiple approaches and levels of analysis, the key characteristic of psychological safety is the employees’ perception of taking interpersonal risks at work (Edmondson & Lei, 2014). Research on organizational learning finds constructs such as psychological empowerment, work engagement, and trust to be similar to psychological safety. However, psychological safety differs from related concepts in that it refers to perceptions of the entire work environment, not just the job or task (Frazier et al., 2017).

3. Current State of Research

Research on psychological safety at the individual-level examines associations between individual perceptions of psychological safety and outcomes (Frazier et al., 2017; Edmondson & Lei, 2014). Numerous studies have paid considerable attention to employee voice as an outcome of psychological safety (Newman et al., 2017). In the following, recent empirical work on the effects of psychological safety on voice is reviewed.

3.1 Direct Effects of Psychological Safety

Several studies have found psychological safety to be related to employee voice (Edmondson & Lei, 2014). Xu et al. (2019) examined the relationship between perceived psychological safety and subordinate voice behavior. Using data from a sample of 289 Chinese construction workers, they established that employees were more willing to speak up to their supervisors if they perceived their work environment as safe. Similarly, Jada and Mukhopadhyay (2018) explored the impact of psychological safety on constructive voice behavior in the Indian service industry. Their findings demonstrated that psychological safety affected whether employees engage in voice. In a two-wave panel study, Liang et al. (2012) examined psychological safety as an antecedent for two forms of voice behavior: promotive and prohibitive voice. Data collected from 239 employees of a Chinese retail company indicated that psychological safety predicted both forms of voice, with the effect being stronger for prohibitive voice. Felt obligation for constructive change strengthened the positive relationship between psychological safety and both forms of voice. In contrast to the findings of Liang et al. (2012), a more recent meta-analysis found psychological safety to be more strongly related to promotive than prohibitive voice (Chamberlin et al., 2017).

Other research on psychological safety addresses also the more recent concept of employee silence. Sherf et al. (2021) conducted two studies to investigate whether employee voice and silence have different antecedents and outcomes. First, the meta-analysis revealed a stronger association between psychological safety and silence than with voice. Second, they replicated their findings in an interval-contingent study analyzing data from 405 participants over six months. Furthermore, Brinsfield (2013) explored motives for employee silence. In his research on 190 employees of a midwestern manufacturing company, he established a negative association between psychological safety and defensive, diffident, and relational silence. Moreover, several systematic reviews concluded that psychological safety is positively related to employee voice as it alleviates the risks associated with speaking up (Edmondson & Lei, 2014, Morrison, 2014; Newman et al., 2017). In support of this finding, Chamberlin et al. (2017) found in their meta-analysis that psychological safety was a predictor of employees’ improvement-oriented voice. Overall, the studies discussed so far indicate that psychological safety has a direct impact on employee voice behavior.

3.2 Indirect Effects of Psychological Safety

Numerous studies have investigated the impact of leadership on voice through psychological safety. In their research, Jada and Mukhopadhyay (2018) investigated whether psychological safety mediates the relationship between empowering leadership and constructive voice in the Indian service industry. Using data from 282 employees from different companies, they showed that empowering leadership positively affected perceived psychological safety, which predicted constructive voice. Other leadership styles have also been studied within this line of research. Elsaied (2019) hypothesized that supportive leadership affects employee voice, with psychological safety as a mediator. He surveyed 268 employees from Egyptian companies at two points in time. As predicted, perceived psychological safety mediated the leadership-voice relationship. Similarly, Chughtai (2016) used survey data to show that psychological safety mediated the association between servant leadership and employee voice in a Pakistani food company. Moreover, Xu et al. (2021) predicted that authentic leadership would be positively related to psychological safety, which in turn would affect voice behavior. They obtained data from a sample of 316 employee-supervisor pairs from Chinese companies. The results revealed that psychological safety did not affect this relationship. This finding is contrary to that of Liu et al. (2015), who found that authentic leadership promotes internal whistleblowing through psychological safety.


Excerpt out of 13 pages


The Effects of Psychological Safety on Employee Voice Behavior. An Overview of the Current State of Research
Maastricht University
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ISBN (Book)
Psychological Safety, Employee Voice, Voice Behavior, State-of-the-Art
Quote paper
Sabina Dörner (Author), 2021, The Effects of Psychological Safety on Employee Voice Behavior. An Overview of the Current State of Research, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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