What is psychological safety in the workplace?
Today's employees are looking for far more than just steady work and regular pay. They want to be respected, valued and free to be themselves. Organizations that can deliver this type of work experience — by creating a work culture that prioritizes psychological safety — are better able to innovate, adapt, meet, and even exceed their business goals.
Although the concept of psychological safety has been presented since the mid-to-late 2000s, it's only emerged in recent years as one of the critical ingredients for a successful, well-functioning organization. Let's take a look at the fundamentals of psychological safety in the workplace and how you can build a culture that values the unique contributions of every team member.
Why has psychological safety become so important to teams today?
A psychologically safe work environment is one in which employees feel comfortable bringing their true, authentic selves to work and don't fear that there will be consequences for doing so.
This has particular application in the realms of experience and ideas. In a psychologically safe workplace, employees are free to express their ideas, viewpoints, and perspectives without fear of criticism or retribution. So long as employees do so in a respectful and mindful way (another key element of psychological safety is mutual respect), they should feel free to speak openly and candidly.
The importance of psychological safety in today's workplaces
Psychological safety has gained traction in recent years as organizations increasingly realize the importance of ensuring workers feel safe and comfortable at work. While ensuring that employees feel safe when they're on the job is critical to mental health and wellbeing, there are also vital business benefits that promoting a psychologically safe work environment can create.
A psychologically safe workplace promotes a free flow of conversation and encourages every individual to bring their unique experience to the table. This process eventually causes the best ideas to rise to the top, where leaders can harvest them to create meaningful value for customers. In other words, psychologically safe organizations are more innovative and better able to edge out their competitors.
This was confirmed by Google's 2012 Project Aristotle. The leaders of Project Aristotle aimed to uncover the secret to success for Google's most effective teams. What they found was striking but perhaps unsurprising: The ability of team members to share ideas, ask questions, and take risks — in a phrase, the presence of psychological safety — was the most important characteristic of high team effectiveness.
The benefits of a psychologically safe environment
Psychological safety touches every aspect of an organization, and companies that commit themselves to promoting psychologically safe work cultures stand to reap numerous benefits at both the individual and organizational levels. These include:
- Greater employee engagement: At the individual level, psychologically safe workplaces enable employees to bring their best selves to work every single day. They don't have to check or hide anything, and that means they're going to give organizations their very best work. Engagement will be high, and organizations will get top performance and productivity.
- Increased retention rates: When employees are engaged with their work and free to express themselves openly and freely, they are more likely to stay with an organization. The MIT Sloan School of Management found that a toxic work culture was 10.4 times more likely to lead to employees leaving their jobs than low pay. Employers are able to get the most out of their talent investments without worrying people will leave after short-term stints. It also helps them attract new hires in a highly competitive labor market.
- Culture of innovation: Psychologically safe work cultures are innovative work cultures. Maintaining a high level of open conversation ensures a free flow of ideas that, even when some ideas won't result in a funded project, ensures the best ideas eventually find their way to the top.
- Better adaptability: Organizations that build psychological safety into the core of their work culture are better able to stay agile and adapt to changing market conditions. Their ability to innovate enables them to revamp workflows and processes to improve efficiency while also finding winning market opportunities to better respond to customer needs.
- Higher team performance and profitability: At the end of the day, the combination of engagement, retention, innovation, and adaptability all make organizations more efficient, productive and profitable. They are able to bring innovative products to market while at the same time cutting inefficiency costs across their entire organization, giving a big boost to their bottom line.
Signs your organization lacks psychological safety
Just 43% of employees say their team has a positive climate, according to McKinsey. Unfortunately, some organizations don't have the tools to identify when their culture's lack of psychological safety is holding them back. There are, however, some tell-tale signs that a culture lacks psychological safety that leaders can try to spot.
No one is bringing anything new to the table
There is usually a palpable tension in the air. Individual team members have their guard up, and there is a noticeable lack of open expression. Most people aren't sharing their ideas or opinions about critical work matters, and even when they do, they are checking others' reactions closely to see how their ideas are being received to ensure they are staying within the company's acceptable bounds. More often, however, those willing to share their opinions will simply stick to the status quo and offer nothing new or different.
There is also a lack of openness in team-wide conversations. Whether they are speaking up in a team meeting or sharing their thoughts in email, it is obvious employees are working harder to sanitize their true thoughts and feelings than they are trying to convey what they really want to say.
Conflict becomes rife
All of this creates a buildup of frustration that forces employees to speak out in more exclusive but safer settings. Employees might have small meetings before or after the larger team meeting to share their real thoughts and attitudes, feeling they can be more candid in smaller group settings with more trusted peers than they can in front of the whole team.
These breakout groups might let employees blow off steam in the short term, but in the long term, they lead to the creation of cliques and in-groups, which inevitably leads to further tension and conflict. Eventually, employees get tired of this type of workplace and they move on to somewhere they feel more valued and respected. Employee engagement scores take a big hit and retention rates drop, and the organization must grapple with the costs associated with a constant revolving door of hires.
Steps leaders can follow to create a psychologically safe environment
Building a psychologically safe work environment is no easy task, especially when one does not currently exist. The following steps serve as a framework to help guide organizations as they seek to create workplaces that are more open, engaging and safe.
1. Leaders must commit themselves to change
Nothing will happen until leaders recognize there is a problem and they commit themselves to solving that problem. Before doing anything, leaders need to make the conscious decision to dedicate themselves — and hold others accountable — to creating a psychologically safe work environment that sincerely respects and values the unique contributions of everyone. They need to agree to do the hard work of assessing both themselves and their workplaces in order to implement real change.
2. Drivers of change should engage all employees and stakeholders
Once leaders are committed, they have to take the time to engage stakeholders and employees across the organization to get to the root of what exactly is going on. This is needed to unearth problems wherever they are, but it's also an important step toward practicing critical communication skills that should become mainstay features of the new culture. Employees might be reluctant to share their thoughts, so it is important for leaders to put safeguards in place to ensure contributor safety.
3. Team members need to diagnose the problem
Conversations with employees should uncover problems, but leaders will also have to dig deep into existing processes themselves to properly diagnose the root of the problem. They should be asking what processes, cultures, attitudes, and other restrictions are preventing people from speaking their minds openly, and begin thinking about new ways to facilitate work while maintaining a culture of psychological safety at the same time.
4. Organizations can implement long-term solutions
Once barriers to openness have been identified, leaders and team members need to collaborate to introduce new systems, processes, and protocols to break down those barriers and enable a culture of psychological safety to become entrenched. Not only should that include verbal guarantees from leadership, it should also include new channels employees can use to raise any concerns they have during or after the implementation of new processes.
5. Leaders must model good behavior for others
Leaders need to understand that their daily behavior and commitment to psychological safety are what will solidify the foundation of their workplace culture. Leaders and employees further down the ranks will model their own leadership styles and work behaviors on what they see being displayed at the top, so it's important for the executive to maintain a consistent focus and dedication to psychological safety.
The key characteristics of leaders who encourage psychologically safety
Empathy, confident humility, and communication are three of the most important characteristics leaders must display and master to create a psychologically safe work environment.
Coupled with high emotional intelligence, empathy is the bedrock of the psychologically safe workplace. The ability to understand the feelings and viewpoints of others and to be a compassionate witness to their individualized experience is critical to keeping an open mind to their unique perspectives. Practicing empathy makes leaders more comfortable hearing differing or opposing ideas, while also giving them the tools to better engage team members and ensure they know their opinions are heard, valued, and respected.
Leaders need to have confidence in their own abilities and ideas. They need to be able to make hard decisions they know won't satisfy everyone while also having the wherewithal to see those decisions through to the end.
However, leaders also have to have the humility to admit when they are wrong and take accountability for their mistakes. Not only does this better position them to learn from their mistakes, but it also makes them more relatable and approachable, which can help create stronger bonds between leadership and the rest of the organization.
If empathy is the bedrock of a psychologically safe work environment, communication is what keeps everything running smoothly. Leaders have to practice a style of communication that emphasizes mutual respect and openness. At the start of every meeting, leaders should remind team members that their opinions and viewpoints are valued and respected, and that they are free to share ideas free of judgment.
The most important skill for effective communication is listening well. Leaders need to demonstrate a sincere interest in what others have to say. When listening, they should strive to give their complete, undivided attention to signal to team members that their voice is valued.
How The Bailey Group helps leaders promote psychological safety
When we initiate our engagement with leaders, we work to help them understand whether the challenges they are facing within the organization are coming from their culture. If they aren't meeting business goals and there is a high degree of conflict between team members, we want leaders to have the ability to take a step back and assess whether a psychologically unsafe culture is at the core of it.
Changing culture starts with changing yourself. The Bailey Group works with leaders to help them learn and practice critical emotional skills that enable them to better engage with employees and create the psychologically safe workplaces they want. We encourage them to ask their peers and colleagues for continuous feedback to better understand how their leadership approach is preventing the establishment of a psychologically safe workplace.
It doesn't end with the individual leaders, however. We recognize that modeling is a critical part of establishing a healthy workplace culture, so we help both individual leaders and the wider executive teams display good psychological safety. If people at the top are walking on eggshells and are afraid to speak their mind, the rest of the organization is going to assume that's the norm and do likewise.
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