PagerDuty Blog

The role of psychological safety in incident response

Incidents impacting your customer and user-facing services can be stressful, both for the responders on your team who are working on a resolution, and for the other stakeholders in your business. For teams to solve incidents quickly and effectively, responders need to be able to trust each other and stakeholders have to trust the responders. This level of trust is hard to cultivate if your organization doesn’t have a significant amount of psychological safety

What is psychological safety

The term psychological safety was coined in the 1950s by psychologist Carl Rogers. It’s been applied in various ways to different types of environments and organizations, including manufacturing, power generation, and aerospace. The direct impact of psychological safety on technology teams has been published and popularized by Harvard professor Amy Edmondson, author of Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Failing Well and other books about organizational learning.

If you’ve heard of psychological safety, it’s likely you’ve encountered Dr. Edmondson’s definition:

A belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.

Folks who have worked in organizations with low psychological safety will recognize what this can mean: punishment for asking too many questions; firing for making mistakes. These negative outcomes derail or prevent the kind of organizational learning we want from incidents, and can hamper incident response itself.

How psychological safety contributes to incident response

Looking at the definition of psychological safety specifically as it relates to incident response hopefully brings some things to mind. The main one you may already be fearing is being fired from your job for “causing” or contributing to an incident. The fear of losing a job has caused a lot of issues in various industries, and has led to some psychological safety horror stories.

If you are included as a responder, incident commander, or other participant in an incident, you want to be able to share ideas and speak freely about the current state of the environment. Responders who aren’t able, or are too fearful to speak up during an incident call can’t help. Their knowledge is sequestered away from the responders, and it might be needed.

Similarly with asking questions – in most environments, but especially in modern, distributed environments, responders need to be able to ask questions without judgment and ridicule. It’s common for folks to not know exactly how deep the dependent systems go, how they are used, or which of the many databases or other resources are acting up. Asking questions during an incident call is crucial so everyone on the call knows the impacts and ramifications of what is going on. 

We also want everyone to be comfortable expressing their concerns. One of the practices we recommend for incident commanders is to gain consensus about any actions taken during an incident that might change the state of the system. We ask “are there any strong objections?” and we expect anyone on the call who does have objections or concerns to speak up. 

We also want to incorporate psychological safety into the entire incident process, including the post-incident review. You may already be familiar with the concept of blamelessness. We want to approach the post-incident review with an open mind and by first acknowledging that complex systems are hard to reason about. Mistakes can be made! What’s more, the transient nature of modern systems means that an action that worked fine last month might have actually been a contributing cause to an incident this month. 

How to build a more safe team

What can or should you do if you feel like your team or organization isn’t as psychologically safe as it needs to be to respond to incidents effectively? There are some practices that can help, even as an individual contributor.

  • Encourage open communication and question asking. Engage with your team, your peers, and others in the organization. Make sure you are asking questions when you need to – be an example.
  • Foster a learning environment and mindset. Set aside blame when things go wrong. Ask how the system can be improved to better support the humans that work on it. Acknowledge your own mistakes and talk through them with your team.
  • Be curious and experiment. Find the methods and practices that work for your organizational culture. Stretch your mindset and try new things if what you have isn’t serving you well. 

All of these things will benefit your team in your day-to-day work, not just during incidents. It can take time to build the foundations you’ll need. Additionally, a major incident in a distributed environment might require involvement from more than one functional team to get to a resolution. Your entire organization should be working towards more psychological safety to produce better outcomes during incidents.


If this all sounds challenging, don’t worry! You are not alone! Here are some excellent resources to help you cultivate more psychological safety and improve your team’s incident response effectiveness: