Creating psychological safety at work: Why it’s important and 9 ways to implement it

Creating psychological safety in the workplace is of utmost importance for employers and HR teams. Not only does it foster a positive work culture, but it also boosts employee productivity and performance, employee retention, and enhances overall employee wellbeing.

What is psychological safety?

Safety is a basic human need, and goes beyond merely physical safety such as shelter, food and water. Psychological safety is defined as the belief that an individual can express themselves openly and honestly without the fear of negative consequences for their status, career, or self-image. We see that in a psychologically safe workplace, employees feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, ideas, and concerns. They are able to speak up in a team meeting, voice their opinions on a topic, know their own fallibility will not be criticized, and feel that risk taking will be welcomed rather than shut down. 

Amy Edmondson, professor at Harvard Business School, first identified the concept of psychological safety in work teams in 1999. She says that psychological safety isn’t about ‘being nice’ but is about having the confidence to take interpersonal risks with the self awareness that it will not have any negative repercussions. Edmondson defined it as a shared belief amongst individuals as to whether it is safe to engage in interpersonal risk-taking in the workplace.

What is an example of psychological safety at work?

A simple example of psychological safety at work could be an employee voicing a concern or suggesting an innovative idea during a team meeting, without the fear of ridicule or retribution from their peers or supervisors. The individual feels it is a safe environment based on mutual respect of every team member, and one in which they feel safe to offer unique perspectives and challenge the status quo. 

Psychological safety enables employees to engage in open communication, question decisions, voice their concerns, and seek greater feedback – all of which could be seen as risky, but in a workplace that works hard to promote psychological safety, could actually be very valuable.

What are the 4 pillars of psychological safety?

It’s broadly accepted that there are four pillars of psychological safety.

  1. Inclusion: a psychologically safe work environment is where everyone feels that they play a vital part, and are valued, respected, and included, regardless of their background, role, or experience.
  2. Trust: employees trust that other team members and their leaders have their best interests in mind, and that they can rely on each other for support.
  3. Respect: safe workplaces have a culture where individuals treat each other with dignity, and differences in opinions and perspectives are respected.
  4. Open communication: Essential is a work environment where open, honest, and transparent communication is encouraged, new ideas are welcomed, and feedback is viewed as an opportunity for growth.

The importance of psychological safety at work

Psychological safety is essential because it fosters a positive work culture, where employees feel supported, motivated, and engaged. When employees believe they can speak their minds without fear, they are more likely to contribute innovative ideas, collaborate effectively, and drive the success of the organization.

The benefits of creating psychological safety in the workplace

Fosters a positive work culture

 A psychologically safe workplace leads to higher levels of employee satisfaction and a more inclusive, supportive work environment. A working environment where people feel empowered to openly share ideas, have an open conversation and create ideas, and where it’s ok to make mistakes when faced with challenges as long as you grow from them is one where people are much more likely to enjoy working. As relationships are so important to workplace happiness, having a level of interpersonal trust will help to improve the dynamic between team members.

Boosts employee productivity and performance

If a business does the same thing all the time, it will never grow in size, scale, and revenue. So you need to empower people to share valuable contributions and creative ideas by building psychological safety. One of the key aspects of psychological safety is that it creates a more innovative and creative environment, where new developments are more likely to be embraced and as such succeed. As psychological safety is part of effective team learning, and as such is correlated with good business outcomes – with one research paper describing it as the ‘engine of performance’, it’s not only the individual who benefits from psychologically safe workplaces, but the company as well. 

Think of Google, they did a year long study on what contributed to high performing teams and found that psychological safety was the number one factor.

Retains employees

A place where it’s clear that your input is welcomed as part of being one of the team members is one that people will want to stay. No one wants to be shot down for having an idea, or question their own fallibility constantly when they raise a point, and if they feel unappreciated they are more likely to leave. Building a culture of psychological safety can therefore help improve employee retention and minimize turnover.

Improves employee engagement

In effective teams people feel engaged in contributing towards discussions and playing their part in problem solving. This comes down to workplace culture, leadership and the dynamic between people in the team. One where contributor safety is clearly paramount, will see employee engagement increase, as people will want to do just that – feel empowered to contribute. All of this will improve the wellbeing of the team members as well as overall productivity. 

Enhances overall employee wellbeing

We know that work plays a huge role in our mental and physical wellbeing. Organizations who prioritize the four pillars of psychological safety are likely to also see an improvement in employee wellbeing, as a result of reduced stress, anxiety and overwhelm. 

5 signs your workplace lacks psychological safety

Some of the main signs that a workplace lacks psychological safety are:

  1. Employees are afraid to speak up or share ideas – maybe your meetings are very quiet
  2. Lack of trust among team members – people may not want to collaborate  and low interpersonal risk taking
  3. High employee turnover
  4. Low levels of employee engagement and motivation – affecting productivity
  5. Reluctance to take risks or admit mistakes to either other team members or the team leader 

9 steps for leaders to create a psychologically safe workplace

1. Prioritize fostering psychological safety at work

To foster psychological safety you need to make it a priority. Team leaders should work with senior managers and directors to build psychological safety into the entire workplace strategy. It’s all about building trust through big strategic directions, down to small acts everyday. 

2. Create a safe space where employees can feel free to share ideas

Within meetings and discussions practice active listening, really showing with your whole body language that you are engaged. Make it known that in your workplace culture asking questions and speaking up is celebrated and welcome.

3. Leaders must make an ongoing commitment

Making employees feel psychologically safe is not a one off activity but should be part of every workplace interaction. Leaders must ensure that they learn the new behaviors that may be required of them – and so organizations have to ensure that there is adequate training and professional development put in place so that leaders feel equipped to help employees feel safe.  

4. Promote both positive and productive discussions

As the Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmonson said, psychologically safe work environments are not about being nice but ‘giving candid feedback, openly admitting mistakes, and learning from each other. And this can only happen when teams feel safe enough to discuss their ideas and are able to do so in an open and honest way, without fear.

5. Practice empathy and compassion in the workplace

There has been a move within some sectors to practice more empathy and compassion that may have been seen in previous generations, which helps create a feeling of being psychologically safe. Even if someone disagrees with a comment or action, try to understand it from another team member’s point of view. And if something goes wrong, be compassionate towards the individual, not critical.

6. Normalize mistakes

It’s ok to make mistakes. In environments where employees feel psychologically safe that fact is recognized. To create and foster innovation sometimes things have to be tried – and that may result in a failure. As long as there is a shared belief in a common goal, team members will feel comfortable enough to keep on trying, which will ultimately benefit the organization.

7. Set up an employee mental health resource group

Create an employee mental health resource group. These groups are run and managed by volunteers who are committed to improving the wellbeing of all employees through activities, resources and guidance that is made available throughout the business. 

8. Incorporate resilience training

Resilience is being able to come back from challenges and adversity – ideally stronger, more knowledgeable, and ready to make progress. Resilience in the workplace is essential for reducing stress, countering negative emotions, and building a positive workplace culture.

9. Measure psychological safety

Key to improving and developing employee wellbeing is taking an informed view of the current situation. Use feedback surveys or Wysa’a anonymous barometer to measure how your team is feeling and identify any key strategies that could help improve it. 

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