Psychological Safety at Work: What Is It and How to Promote It
Looking to increase psychological safety at work? Read more to understand the factors that play a part and what you can do to promote it.
Psychological safety at work is an often underrated yet critical element in the organisation. Conventionally, safety at work referred to physical dangers that required proper equipment – be it hard hats, rubberised gloves, or protective boots.
However, in an unconventional modern world, the most significant threats have taken a psychological turn – though they remain as pernicious and harmful as ever.
Psychological dangers at work can quickly ruin workplace culture and lead to devastating reputational damage for your organisation. Years and decades of hard-earned recognition could topple within days with a barrage of scathing Glassdoor reviews, impacting the future of your employee experience, retention and engagement efforts, along with business success.
As a leader, you will need to prioritise psychological safety to provide employees with a safe work environment that is conducive to performing at their best. According to data released by Ecsell Institute, psychological safety was found to be highly correlated with managerial effectiveness. The more they felt psychologically safe, the higher they rated their manager. Conversely, managers who got lower ratings were found to have lower psychological safety ratings.
The pandemic’s push for remote and hybrid work arrangements further complicates psychology at work, as leaders seek flexible strategies to safeguard their company’s most precious assets (i.e., workers) despite the distance.
Demystifying Psychological Safety at Work
In her recent book ‘The Fearless Organisation’, author Amy Edmonson, Professor of Leadership and Development at Harvard Business School defined psychological safety as “a shared belief held by team members that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”
Essentially, psychological safety at work refers to the state of a workplace where individuals are free to express themselves and share their ideas and opinions without fear of censure, humiliation, or receiving adverse consequences (e.g., being deprived of a promotion or worker privileges).
For example, if colleague A speaks out against a HIPPO (highest paid person’s opinion), the challenger can do so without fearing repercussions that could destroy or compromise their career. The same freedom applies to suggesting change, addressing concerns, admitting to a mistake and other forms of undisguised workplace expression.
Psychological safety creates the ideal environment where there is a shared belief that each individual deserves the trust to manage interpersonal risks and engagements. This doesn’t mean that employees avoid conflicts, have no autonomy or are left unaccountable—rather, they are in an environment that supports them in embracing conflict, agree to share failures, and address the problem, while having the trust that they will be protected and pushed to grow.
The opposite of psychological safety at work creates a toxic work culture where employees lack the free will to express themselves, take a risk, and effectively contribute to the organisation. Workers may feel ostracised, disengaged, and dissatisfied in such situations, ultimately leading to high turnover rates and vacant roles.
Psychological Safety in Groups
Psychological safety at work starts from the top. As a decision-maker and group leader, your thoughts, decisions, speech and actions will significantly affect the organisational culture at work.
Developing specific skills will help you promote psychological safety among your workforce, leading by example in positive ways that individuals can observe and emulate. The underlying goal is to create a friendly and inspiring atmosphere where high-performing teams feel comfortable speaking and participating in any discussion.
According to McKinsey & Co’s report, Psychological Safety and the Critical Role of Leadership Development, workers with the freedom to express themselves can deliver many organisational benefits, such as:
- Tapping on the potential advantages of diversity and how they scale organisational growth and development.
- Generating creativity and innovation to provide companies with a competitive edge.
- Improving adaptability to change, especially during times of high volatility.
These organisational advantages have become increasingly crucial during the pandemic, as the global market faces a shortage of qualified professionals as millions lose their jobs. You will need to prioritise psychological safety in your team by empowering employees via a positive team climate.
Positive Team Climate
A positive team climate follows the musketeer concept of “all for one and one for all.”Through this workplace setting, individuals appreciate the contribution of co-workers and have a genuine care for their wellbeing.
Additionally, there’s a constant encouragement for individual input, where each employee has a say in shaping how the team handles work.
Your preferred leadership style will affect the viability of a positive team climate and, in turn, psychological safety at work.
- Authoritarian Leadership: Decision-makers under this category believe in assuming full responsibility for the actions taken by their team or organisation. The leadership style largely disagrees with the freedom-based prerequisites of psychological safety.
- Laissez-faire Leadership: Some might consider this an example of figurehead leadership, where decision-makers shirk the responsibility of goalsetting and lack a clear direction. In such cases, while employees may have the freedom to express themselves, they disregard their ineffectual leader and face issues carrying out concentrated efforts.
- Participative Leadership: decision-makers in this category believe in empowering team members by giving them the freedom to make decisions that influence the entire collaboration. As such, you should consider a participative approach if you intend to establish psychology safety at work.
As a participative leader, you will have the communication skills to maintain an enthusiastic workforce, where members feel valued and appreciated. Your team members will be more willing to innovate and contribute ideas that propel your organisation towards new heights.
Additionally, you could see a dip in absenteeism, misunderstandings, and conflicts, as members look forward to showing up at the workplace with better performance.
Remote work has contributed to increased absenteeism in some cases, as employees struggle to draw a line between professional and personal lives, resulting in burnout and stress overload.
A psychologically safe work culture enables employees to speak up when they experience the earliest signs of exhaustion to reach the best arrangements with leaders that drive the best performance.
Promoting Psychological Safety at Work
You can identify a psychologically safe workplace from observing the dynamics among co-workers and management. One of the biggest indicators is that employees tend to ask more questions during meetings, even if it means challenging a notion proposed by leaders.
Rather than staying silent throughout the discussion, each attendee becomes an active contributor, furthering project or organisational progress.
Participative leaders can lay the foundations of psychological safety through various ways that encourage employee engagement. These strategies include tweaks to organisational processes and promoting individual contributions.
Edmondson and Harvard Business School professor Jeff Polzer says that when it comes to creating psychologically safe environments, establishing norms is critical to success and participation. (Source: www.betterup.com)
Encourage Genuine Curiosity
According to SoundWave’s data, team members report hearing the voices of Inquire, Challenge and Advise from their managers the most. What does this mean?
As leaders, we often tend to act in a way to be the ones to answer all the questions and impart our wisdom. We view great leadership to be about having all the answers and solutions ready. From the above voices, we can see that the majority of team managers tend to show their curiosity for the sake of displaying their viewpoints and expertise. But what about giving your team members the opportunity to grow, think and take the risk for themselves?
Experienced leaders know that the power of leadership and wisdom comes from asking questions, not providing answers. Consider actively soliciting questions from your team by asking for new inputs, and suggestions, considering alternative viewpoints, and seeking ongoing and consistent feedback.
This sets the benchmark of your own keenness to learn and shows how you enable others to do. In turn, others start to feel safer in sharing what they truly think, and more empowered to be driven to innovate.
Most employees see leaders as the benchmark and representation of the company’s values, goals, and vision. Therefore, you should set a clear example by attending meetings (rather than delegating a representative) and expressing openness to suggestions and opinions.
A significant percentage of communication comes from non-verbal cues, so it is essential to pay attention to facial expressions and hand gestures. These communication skills have become increasingly challenging in the post-COVID environment where employees communicate via a screen or while wearing a mask.
You may consider enhancing your masked conversations with exaggerated eye movements or applying universally-understood hand gestures (i.e., thumbs up or time out) to support a statement. Additionally, you should try speaking slower and slightly louder to ensure that the other person understands you without missing or misconstruing talking points.
Cancel Blame Culture
Blame culture refers hostile setting in a workplace, where teams focus on an individual’s mistakes rather than discussing solutions. It also creates a climate where leaders shift responsibility away from themselves when things turn sour. This can be a major contributor to a lack of psychological safety in the workplace, as it doesn’t allow employees to speak up and take accountability.
You can prevent or reverse blame culture by changing how you ask questions, especially during a crisis. Mainly, you should tap into collaborative language. For example, when you hit a bump in the road, rather than singling out the person at fault or scrutinising the details of the incident, you should brainstorm for answers and seek creative ideas from the entire team toward fixing the issue.
Essentially, you should encourage group ownership of the problem and discover ways to improve work processes that benefit all.
Get Teams Involved
Autocratic leaders hoard the decision-making process, resulting in a one-way street where employees feel undervalued and unempowered. As a result, these leaders may face multiple blindspots due to a single perspective, which hampers organisational growth and progress.
Alternatively, consulting teams during meetings gives you broad insight into company health, industry trends, and other valuable intel to make better decisions. Psychological safety at work is about providing every contributor with a voice and ensuring that it matters.
Therefore, upon making a decision, explain the reasoning behind that arrangement and share how each person’s unique contribution influenced the final direction. Inclusivity and transparency are vital components for creating the desired environment for optimal team involvement.
Make Feedback a Company Policy
While as a leader, you will ultimately make the final decision for your company, you should always gather feedback from your employees. An open-door policy makes it possible for workers to reach out to you anytime they have input.
A psychologically safe workplace helps tear down the invisible barriers between office hierarchies, creating the possible scenario where interns can communicate an idea to the CEO if necessary.
You can encourage feedback at work by inviting employees to challenge a proposed idea or to identify potential pitfalls with a decision. Consider these practices as a type of healthy controlled conflict that inspires team members to develop decision-making skills and greater accountability.
Psychological Safety in the New Landscape
Digital and remote communication remains a growing trend in the modern workplace. As a leader, it is necessary to integrate psychological safety processes across screens and multiple locations. Remote conversations lack the spontaneity (i.e., detecting nonverbal cues) and casual aspects that connect teams in a physical office.
There are several ways to achieve this, which include:
- Using emojis and gifs in text communications to create a friendly and casual conversation flow where appropriate.
- Inviting all participants in a video conference to contribute their thoughts, even for a short statement.
- Encouraging rituals and routines to create work-life boundaries. For example, holding 2 pm meetings every Wednesday and discouraging work-related calls after office hours.
- Continuing to show appreciation despite the distance. For instance, you may acknowledge the meaningful contribution or success of individuals during an online group conference or send motivational emails and texts.
A lot about psychological safety depends on how we speak — the way we ask, suggest and tell.
SoundWave provides the specialised tools and assessments to help you shift the dialogue and culture within your organisation. We will help you identify and improve existing communication skills to build meaningful and lasting relationships in your personal and professional spheres.
By aligning your conversations with purpose and the most suitable speaking technique (i.e., ask, suggest, and tell), you can create psychological safety at the workplace that empowers your team for excellence.
Take a SoundWave assessment to discover the unique potential of your voice and transform intentions into impact.
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