Exploring the opposing mechanisms underlying the effects of psychological safety on organizational risk-taking behaviors


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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  • Hong DENG

Related Research Unit(s)


Awarding Institution
  • Kwok LEUNG (Supervisor)
Award date2 Oct 2013


This dissertation seeks to enrich the literature on psychological safety by examining the mechanisms underlying its effects on a variety of organizational risk-taking behaviors that organizations desire to promote (i.e., voice, learning, and creativity) and the boundary conditions. In the literature, psychological safety, a construct that is particularly salient at team level, is deemed to be one of the most important factors in promoting organizational risk-taking behaviors in team contexts. Despite notes of caution about the limits of this construct from conceptual reviews and some unexpected non-significant results from empirical studies, few studies have scrutinized the effects of psychological safety from a more comprehensive perspective that goes beyond the exclusive focus on its positive effect. In other words, previous research has largely ignored the potential harm psychological safety can do to team-level organizational risk-taking behaviors. In the current dissertation, I develop a dual-pathway model to explore how and when psychological safety positively or negatively influences organizational risk-taking behaviors. The model proposes that psychological safety can have both a positive and a negative effect on the outcomes. Its positive effect is attributable to a decrease in interpersonal fear, which is defined as interpersonal concerns about actions that are uncertain or interpersonally risky. The negative effect is underpinned by a drop in work striving, which is primarily concerned with the amount of time and energy invested in job tasks. Given the existence of the contradictory effects of psychological safety, moderators are further proposed in the model to serve the purposes of (1) identifying the conditions under which psychological safety is conducive or harmful to organizational risk-taking behaviors and providing guidance for practice and (2) further substantiating the novel dual-pathway mechanisms of psychological safety and demonstrating the distinctness of the mechanisms. Two independent studies are employed to examine the dual-pathway mechanisms of psychological safety and its boundary conditions, and coherent findings are obtained from these studies. The first study seeks to establish a theoretical framework of the complex dynamics involved in psychological safety. A questionnaire survey involving 294 employees from 67 teams and their immediate supervisors supports the prediction that psychological safety is positively related to team voice and team learning through interpersonal fear and negatively related to the two behaviors through work striving. The results further show that prevention focus strengthens the effect of psychological safety on interpersonal fear such that psychological safety is more strongly related to interpersonal fear when prevention focus is high. The construct job demands weakens the effect of psychological safety on work striving such that the relationship between psychological safety and work striving is weaker when job demands is high. The corresponding moderated mediation effects are tested and supported, showing that (a) the positive indirect effect of psychological safety on team voice and team learning through interpersonal fear exists only when prevention focus is high and (b) the negative indirect effect of psychological safety on the two outcomes through work striving occurs only when job demands is low. The second study aims to prove that the proposed opposing mechanisms of psychological safety are robust by examining a different boundary condition (i.e., individualism/collectivism) and an outcome behavior (i.e., creativity) with a more rigorous method in terms of causality inferences. In other words, I conduct Study 2 to validate and replicate the findings from the survey study. I propose that the positive and negative pathways of psychological safety with creativity as an outcome will be made salient by different team cultures: individualism vs. collectivism. Psychological safety and individualism/collectivism are experimentally manipulated, and a behavioral measure is used for creativity. The results from the experiment involving 52 teams (156 undergraduate students) support the predictions that high psychological safety reduces interpersonal fear only under the condition of collectivism and that high psychological safety leads to effort loss only under the condition of individualism. The results further show that (a) the positive impact of psychological safety on the originality and flexibility of creativity through interpersonal fear is significant under a collectivistic team culture and (b) the negative impact of psychological safety on time-on-task through work striving is significant under an individualistic team culture. In general, the findings of these two studies support the dual-pathway model of psychological safety by establishing the associations of psychological safety with both interpersonal fear and work striving and testing the moderators that qualify these associations. Theoretical and practical implications as well as future research directions are also discussed in this dissertation.

    Research areas

  • Risk-taking (Psychology), Psychology, Industrial, Organizational behavior