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6 Min Read

Psychological Safety and Its Siblings Meaning and Capacity

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Brian Deyo

Employee engagement is a hard thing to measure. What’s even harder is understanding what drives it. Just Google “How can I improve employee engagement” and you will get four million results. On the first page, all but one are “list” articles:

  • 10 Secrets to Improve…
  • 25 Ways to Improve…
  • 49 Employee Engagement Ideas…
  • 6 Simple But Effective…

They can’t all be correct, can they? We’re going to try to bring some clarity to what seems like quite a bit of confusion.

This post is intended to help you understand what happens psychologically that allows employees to engage with your business. At the end of the day, what drives employee engagement is highly personal, highly dependent on the organizational culture, and therefore highly variable for each individual. It’s possible that with two teams that are clones of each other, you could foster engagement in each with very different leadership styles and organizational practices. However, at the root of those two engaged teams would be the same three psychological conditions.

These conditions were first proposed by Dr. William Kahn in his seminal study about employee engagement called “Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work” (1990). He observed two work environments. One group was made up of summer camp counselors. The other included employees at an architecture firm. Even though these groups were quite different, he consistently found three psychological conditions that were necessary for employee engagement in both environments:

  • Meaningfulness
  • Safety
  • Capacity

No matter what the other lists you find on Google, Forbes, or HBR say, at the end of the day, you need to understand and foster these three things in every employee if you want an engaged workforce. (Think of this as the first principles of employee engagement drivers. When you distill everything down, this is what you’re left with.)

We at 15Five don’t dispute that some actions improve engagement more than others. But when we hear things like, “Employee engagement is all about the manager.” Or, “The top driver of engagement is a collaborative work environment,” we sort of cringe.

Here’s the thing—EVERYTHING you do as a business matters for engagement. EVERYTHING. Engagement is comprehensive. It involves a person’s perception, feelings, and beliefs about the business, the people they work with, the leadership, and the work they’re actually doing. Quite literally, every component of your business impacts an employee’s engagement. That doesn’t mean all of these elements influence it equally. Snacks aren’t as important as inspiration. Dress code isn’t as important as clarity of role or equitable treatment for everyone. But the point is, all of those elements need to result in meaningfulness, safety, and capacity. Focus on intimately understanding the feelings and thoughts of each employee and you will have clarity on why they are engaged or not.

Meaningfulness, Safety, and Capacity

Everything starts with meaning. You’re going nowhere if your employees don’t believe that what they do is valuable. But be careful because this isn’t just about financial value. Study after study of human behavior has shown that people are not simply motivated by money.

Meaningfulness is the sense of value received (purpose, money, status, and influence) when we immerse and express ourselves in our role performances. Essentially, it is the power of the “why” that motivates us to want to work towards the benefit of the company.

When your team sees value in what they do each day, they have a psychological condition that motivates them to engage. In order for that motivation to turn into engagement, they need to feel like engaging won’t be risky or have negative consequences. That risk is captured in the psychological condition of safety (or the lack thereof).

Psychological safety is a sense within the individual that they can show and employ themselves without fear of negative consequences to self image, status, or career. They feel workplace situations are trustworthy, secure, predictable, and clear in terms of consequences.

If an employee finds meaning in work and sees investing in that work as a safe thing to do, then the final requirement is their capacity to invest. Do they have enough energy to focus at work? Are they well-equipped for their tasks, or are they overwhelmed?

Capacity is the sense of possessing the physical, emotional, and psychological resources necessary for investing oneself into the role. It is the sense of feeling capable of driving physical, intellectual, and emotional energies into role performances.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

Here’s an analogy you can use to better understand this concept. Think of the employee experience as a hiking journey through the wilderness. What is required at every step along the way to keep you moving forward intensely (i.e. engagement)?

First, you have to want to move forward. This desire is produced through meaningfulness. It is what you think you will get out of the experience. This, in turn, fosters inspiration and motivation to travel far and fast (engage).


Second, you have to believe that the path is safe. The safer the path, the more likely you are to move forward quickly. If you think you might get broadsided unexpectedly or if the bridge that you’re trying to cross will break, you are very unlikely to move forward with abandon (engage).


Third, you have to have the capacity to make the journey. If you are exhausted, hurt, or distracted, you won’t be able to make the journey very efficiently. If you aren’t sure where to turn or if you aren’t equipped to scale a challenging obstacle, then you won’t do it with enthusiasm and confidence (engagement).


What Now?

Now that you know the three psychological conditions necessary for engagement, you are equipped to sort through the messy “What drives engagement?” question. Use your own creativity and understanding of your employees to help them make this journey with you.

If along the way you need some guidance, we would love to help you measure these psychological conditions and give you tools to improve engagement. Sometimes, what is simple to understand is difficult to execute. We help you shine a light on areas where you can take action. We’d love to help you understand meaningfulness, safety, and capacity amongst your team.