What Is Psychological Safety At Work?
Psychological safety was first coined in the 1960s by researchers Edgar H. Schein and Warren G. Bennis. But it wasn't until Amy Edmondson's pioneering work in the late 1990s that this concept became a hot topic for organizations and teams.
Amy Edmondson, a leading researcher in the field, defines psychological safety as "a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking."
In other words, psychological safety at work is knowing that you can:
- Speak up
- Offer new ideas
- Be yourself
Without fear of negative consequences like being ignored, ridiculed, or punished.
But psychological safety in the workplace goes beyond just feeling comfortable sharing ideas. It also means feeling like an equal team member and that your contributions are valued and heard without fear of judgment or discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or background.
Let’s put it this way: if you have ever been in a situation where you:
- Didn't feel comfortable speaking up or sharing ideas
- Have felt like you were being overlooked or ignored in meetings
- Have been afraid to be your authentic self at work because you feared not fitting in
Then psychological safety is something that needs to be addressed in your workplace.
But let's not get psychological safety confused with being soft or nice. It's not about holding back on giving constructive feedback or avoiding tough conversations. Instead, we must create a safe and inclusive space for vulnerability, where mistakes are seen as opportunities to learn and grow. It's about creating a safe space where team members feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work, speaking up, and taking risks without fear of negative consequences.
Why Psychological Safety Matters
So why is psychological safety at work so important?
The simple answer is that psychological safety leads to better business outcomes. In fact, according to Google's Project Aristotle study, psychological safety was the most crucial factor in determining a successful team.
Here is a list of some of the reasons why this concept can make teams and organizations so successful:
Improved Employee Engagement
Let me ask you a question. How often do you feel engaged in your work when you can’t speak up, feel like your contributions aren't valued, or have to change who you are to fit in with your team?
You probably aren’t engaged during these situations.
But we can change this. When employees feel like they can be themselves and their ideas are heard, they are more likely to be engaged in their work and perform better.
When psychological safety is lacking in the workplace, team members tend to withhold information or avoid speaking up about concerns due to fears of being humiliated or shut down by their peers and superiors.
But when psychological safety is present, team members feel more comfortable voicing their opinions and views, which leads to better decision-making and problem-solving.
Innovation requires creative and outside-the-box thinking, something that often involves taking risks and speaking up with new ideas.
How do you think our beloved blurred background on video calls was created? Psychological safety allowed a team member at Microsoft to speak up and suggest the idea without fear of being shut down or ridiculed.
Psychological safety at work creates a space where team members feel comfortable sharing new thoughts. It allows the free flow of ideas and diverse perspectives to challenge the status quo and drive innovation.
An Inclusive Culture
Returning to my previous example, women are often overlooked or ignored in meetings. Women being ignored in meetings is a clear example of psychological safety not being present in the workplace. Actions like this reinforce an exclusive culture where specific individuals are favored over others.
But psychological safety at work is about creating a culture where everyone feels equal and included, no matter their background. This allows everyone to bring their unique perspectives and contributions to the team.
Improved Employee Wellbeing
Feeling like you can't be your authentic self or are constantly being judged can affect a person's mental wellbeing. It can cause stress and anxiety, and lead to burnout.
By creating a safe environment where team members feel comfortable, valued, and supported, psychological safety can improve employee wellbeing and lead to a more positive work culture.
Lower Attrition Rates
Would you rather work in a toxic and high-stress environment lacking psychological safety or a safe and inclusive space where your contributions are valued?
I'm sure the latter sounds much more appealing. And as psychological safety at work leads to improved engagement and a sense of belonging, it is no surprise that employees are more likely to stay in such environments.
As Mark Mortensen and Amy Edmonson highlight in their article Without Psychological Safety, Hybrid Work Won’t Work, psychological safety at work allows for more effective collaboration amongst team members.
Without psychological safety, individuals are less likely to share information or coordinate with team members, leading to silos and a lack of communication. On the other hand, psychological safety at work creates an environment where team members feel comfortable reaching out for help without fearing embarrassment or being seen as incompetent.
Psychological safety can improve numerous factors in the workplace like employee engagement, innovation, and decision-making. And as a result of these improvements, overall team performance is enhanced.
We know this form of workplace safety is worth investing in and prioritizing. Now the real question is: how do we create this environment at work?
How To Create Psychological Safety At Work
Before we go deep into various strategies you can adopt at work, let's first understand the four stages of psychological safety.
According to Dr. Timothy Clark, author of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation, psychological safety can be likened to a pyramid of 4 layers, very much like the structure of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.
Before an employee can fully feel psychologically safe, the layers of psychological safety need to be addressed in ascending order beginning with inclusion safety, moving onto learner, contributor, and challenger safety.
1. Inclusion Safety
Inclusion safety addresses the need to feel like you belong and are accepted by your team. This includes feeling respected, having a voice, and having diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
2. Learner Safety
Learner safety is about feeling comfortable making mistakes without fear of punishment or judgment. It involves creating a culture where employees are encouraged and supported to take risks, learn, and grow.
3. Contributor Safety
Contributor safety is about feeling valued for your contributions and being able to share ideas without fear of criticism. It involves creating a culture where individuals are empowered to contribute their unique skills and talents.
4. Challenger Safety
Challenger safety refers to feeling comfortable challenging the status quo and speaking up about potential issues or concerns. It involves creating a culture where individuals are encouraged to speak their minds, offer alternative perspectives, and find solutions for continuous improvement.
10 Strategies To Improve Psychological Safety In Your Workplace
Now that we have a better understanding of psychological safety and the stages it encompasses, let's dive into ten tested strategies for creating psychological safety at work:
1. Collect Baseline Psychological Safety Information From Your Team
First and foremost, if you want to improve psychological safety at work, gathering information on where your team currently stands is essential. This information can be collected through surveys, one-on-one interviews, or focus groups.
Be mindful that not everyone will want to participate, especially those who may have had negative experiences. So try and incentivize completion by creating a challenge around it or offering a small incentive.
If you can genuinely offer it, you can also ensure complete confidentiality and anonymity, so that individuals feel comfortable expressing their true thoughts and feelings without fear of judgment or retribution. Keeping employees' information safe on surveys is often challenging, especially on small teams, so build your survey with care so that personal information is stripped out. For example, an innocent question like "What department are you in?" can quickly provide details about a person if their department is small.
2. Communicate With Empathy
Returning to the first stage of psychological safety, inclusion safety, one of the critical components is feeling respected and heard. One way to promote this is through communicating with empathy.
Empathy involves understanding another person's perspective and feelings by putting yourself in someone else's shoes. And it's important to practice this in individual interactions, team meetings, and company-wide communication.
This can include:
- Actively listening
- Avoiding assumptions
- Asking clarifying questions
- Being open to others' perspectives
It's about recognizing that everyone has their unique world perspective, and seeking to understand and validate those perspectives rather than immediately judging or dismissing them.
3. Lead With Compassion
Leading with compassion is often confused with leading with empathy. But there is a subtle but essential difference. While both involve understanding and considering others' perspectives, compassion goes one step further in taking action to alleviate suffering.
Leading with compassion means not just understanding an individual or team's struggles but also taking steps to support and relieve those struggles.
Relieving struggles can include:
- Providing resources to address personal or professional challenges
- Checking in on individuals' psychological wellbeing
- Promoting work-life balance
4. Stop Separating Non-Work And Work Conversations
Before the pandemic, it was common for individuals to have a clear separation between their personal and professional lives. But the lines have become increasingly blurred as more of us work remotely and juggle various personal obligations alongside our job responsibilities.
We must be mindful that something could affect an individual's workplace psychological safety and also impact their wellbeing outside work. And vice versa. Personal stressors can often have a negative impact on how employees show up at work.
So instead of assuming that everything is fine because an individual has "not brought it up" or "kept it separate," try to create a culture where individuals feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work and discussing any challenges they may be facing.
5. Encourage Experimentation
Fear of failure can be a significant barrier for individuals to take risks, speak up, and bring new ideas to the table.
As a leader, it's important to encourage experimentation and not immediately punish or judge failure. It's about creating a culture where experimenting, making mistakes, and learning from them is encouraged and valued.
For example, you could:
- Set aside time for specific projects for individuals to experiment
- Celebrate small wins or learning moments
- Provide resources for career development
6. Provide Consistent And Timely Recognition
Recognition and appreciation for a job well done can go a long way in promoting psychological safety at work. Especially in today's working world, where we have teams across different continents and time zones, we must make an effort to recognize individuals' contributions, achievements, and hard work.
Recognition should be consistent and timely, not just a one-off or sporadic event. Delayed or sporadic recognition can come across as insincere and may have a negative psychological impact on individuals and demotivate them from future performance. So make sure to regularly check in with team members and provide consistent recognition, publicly and privately, for their contributions and efforts.
To keep you straight, try setting reminders or scheduling regular check-ins to provide recognition often. An employee recognition software such as Nectar can automate this for you so that you never miss an opportunity to show appreciation.
7. Promote Respect
There will always be conflict and differing opinions in the workplace. We must create a culture where individuals can bring up these conflicts and have difficult conversations without fear of judgment or retribution.
As a leader, it's important to promote respect among team members in how they communicate, make decisions, and solve conflicts. You can promote respect by:
- Setting clear expectations for respectful communication
- Providing resources and training on conflict resolution
- Modeling respect in your interactions with team members
8. Swap Blame With Curiosity
When team members feel like they are constantly being blamed or criticized, it creates a sense of psychological insecurity and inhibits safety.
Research shows that blame and criticism are strongly linked to defensiveness, leading to individuals shutting down, resisting change, and even leaving the company.
As a leader, try to swap blame with curiosity instead. For example, when team members make mistakes or come up with new ideas that don't work out, ask them questions such as:
- What do you think needs to happen here?
- How do you think we could have done it better?
- What can we do in the future to improve this process?
These questions promote a culture of learning and growth rather than fear. It will help your employees feel like their input is valued and that they can learn from their mistakes. It will also help to reduce the amount of defensiveness and conflict in the workplace.
9. Include Your Team In Decision-Making
As per Timothy Clarke's contributor safety stage, psychological safety at work is about individuals feeling comfortable providing input and participating in decision-making.
Involve your team members in the decision-making process instead of dictating decisions from above. You might ask for their input on specific issues or allow them to take ownership of certain projects so they can make their own decisions.
Research shows that psychological safety is strongly linked to the decentralization of decision-making, so giving your team members autonomy and ownership in their work can positively impact psychological safety.
10. Be A Psychological Safety Leader
In other words, walk the walk and lead by example.
Creating this psychologically safe environment starts at the top, so ensure you're setting the tone and promoting these ideals in your team. Show your team members that this is important to you, and make it a priority in how you interact and communicate with them.
You can do this by:
- Being open to feedback
- Promoting respect among team members
- Providing timely recognition for their contributions
- Involving them in decision-making processes
Throw away the old-school autocratic leadership style that does not work anymore and adopt a more consultative, participatory approach to leading your team. As a result, your employees will feel more valued and empowered, creating a psychologically safe work environment for all.
Make Psychological Safety At Work A Priority
So now you know what psychological safety is and how to embed it into your company culture, it's time to make it a workplace priority.
If we want to create a working world of inclusion and belonging, psychological safety needs to be at the forefront of our minds. We should strive to create an environment where individuals feel comfortable taking risks, sharing ideas, and being their authentic selves.
- Encourage open communication and feedback among team members
- Provide resources or training on respectful communication and conflict resolution
- Show consistent and timely recognition and appreciation for your team's invaluable contributions
And while you’re devising your new strategy, why not book a demo with Nectar to see how our employee recognition tool can help you build an engaging, inclusive, and innovative workplace.