Psychological Safety at Work

Psychological Safety at Work: The Key to a Thriving Workplace

Psychological safety at work is an essential but often overlooked aspect of a healthy and productive workplace. In this article, we’ll define what psychological safety is, explore the dangers of a workplace that lacks it, and contrast that with a workplace that has successfully cultivated this critical element. We’ll also provide practical steps organizations can take to improve psychological safety, ensuring their employees can thrive in a supportive environment.

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety is the extent to which individuals feel at ease sharing their thoughts and taking risks without fear of negative consequences. It involves feeling comfortable expressing ideas, opinions, and concerns without the worry of humiliation or retaliation. It is a crucial component of a healthy and productive work environment.

Psychological safety has been shown to have numerous positive effects on teams and organizations, including improved creativity, problem-solving, decision-making, and overall performance. It is particularly important in high-pressure or complex work environments, such as healthcare, technology, and research, but it is valuable in any context where collaboration, communication, and innovation are critical. It was popularized by the research of Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Business School professor, and has gained recognition as a key factor in building healthy, high-performing teams and organizations.

Characteristics of poor psychological safety

Imagine a workplace where employees walk on eggshells, fearing the consequences of expressing their opinions or concerns. In such an environment, people are hesitant to speak up, share innovative ideas, or report problems. This is the hallmark of a workplace devoid of psychological safety.

Fear and silence: In workplaces with low psychological safety, employees often choose to remain silent even when they witness unethical behaviour or inefficiencies. They worry about backlash, ridicule, or retribution, creating a culture of secrecy and mistrust.

Stifled creativity: When employees feel their ideas will be met with criticism or dismissal, creativity and innovation suffer. A lack of psychological safety stifles the flow of fresh ideas and hinders progress.

High stress and burnout: Employees who constantly feel on edge and unsupported in their roles are more prone to stress and burnout. This not only harms individual well-being but also results in decreased productivity and increased turnover.

Disengagement: Disengaged employees are less likely to contribute fully to their work. They simply go through the motions, doing the bare minimum required to avoid negative consequences, without any passion or dedication.

Example: "Sarah," a talented graphic designer, worked for a company where she felt her ideas were never taken seriously. Her manager consistently shot down her creative proposals, and co-workers rarely collaborated. Eventually, Sarah stopped sharing her ideas leading to a decline in her job satisfaction and overall performance. She became disengaged and miserable at work.

What does good psychological safety look like?

Let’s shift gears and explore what a workplace with strong psychological safety looks like.

Open communication: In a psychologically safe workplace, employees feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, concerns, and ideas without fear of ridicule or retribution. They know their input is valued, which encourages open and honest conversations.

Constructive feedback: Feedback is given and received in a constructive way. Employees understand that feedback is meant to help them grow and improve, not to criticize or belittle them.

Innovation and risk-taking: Employees are encouraged to take calculated risks and explore innovative solutions. Mistakes are seen as opportunities for learning and growth rather than grounds for punishment.

Inclusive culture: Diversity is celebrated, and inclusive practices are embedded in the organisation’s culture. Employees from all backgrounds feel respected and included, fostering a sense of belonging.

Example: "John" works for a technology company that places a strong emphasis on psychological safety. During team meetings, everyone is encouraged to contribute their ideas, and even the wildest suggestions are met with curiosity and enthusiasm. When a project encounters setbacks, the team collaboratively discusses the issues and works together to find solutions. This approach not only boosts productivity but also strengthens team bonds. John's level of happiness at work is high and he feels connected to his team and the organisation.

psychological safety at work

How to Improve Psychological Safety at Work

Lead by example: Leadership sets the tone. Managers and executives must model open and respectful communication. Encourage leaders to share their vulnerabilities and demonstrate that it’s safe to do so.

Promote trust: Trust is fundamental to psychological safety. Leaders and colleagues should trust each other’s intentions and competence. Encourage trust-building activities, such as team-building exercises, to help employees connect on a personal level.

Transparency: Be transparent about company goals, strategies, and decisions. Employees who understand the reasons behind decisions are more likely to feel involved and secure.

Encourage empathy: Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Encouraging empathy helps employees relate to their colleagues’ experiences and challenges. Empathetic leaders set a positive example by actively listening and showing understanding.

Establish boundaries: Clearly define and communicate the boundaries of acceptable behaviour and communication in the workplace. Ensure that employees understand what is considered inappropriate and that there are consequences for violating these boundaries.

Recognize and reward contributions: Acknowledge and reward employees for their contributions, both big and small. Publicly recognize achievements, innovations, and efforts to create a culture of appreciation.

Support work-life balance: Encourage a healthy work-life balance by offering flexible work arrangements, promoting time off, and discouraging excessive overtime. When employees feel they can manage their personal lives alongside their work responsibilities, they are more likely to feel psychologically safe.

Provide training: Offer training programs on topics like active listening, giving and receiving feedback, and conflict resolution. When conflicts arise, employees need to be equipped with the skills to address them in a constructive and non-confrontational manner. These skills empower employees to engage in healthy, constructive conversations.

Establish clear expectations: Ensure that expectations around communication and behaviour are well-defined. This can include guidelines for meetings, feedback sessions, and reporting channels for ethical concerns. Clear expectations bring certainty, and confidence and enable employees to do their best work.

Encourage open communication: Actively encourage employees to speak up when they have concerns or see something that doesn’t align with the organisation’s values. Create anonymous reporting mechanisms if needed to protect those who may fear retaliation. Create formal channels for employees to provide feedback anonymously if they prefer. This can help individuals express concerns without fear of retaliation.

Support diversity and inclusion: Promote diversity and inclusion in your organisation. Recognize and celebrate the unique perspectives and contributions of employees from various backgrounds. Provide diversity and inclusion training to help employees recognize unconscious biases and understand the importance of inclusivity. These programs can help create a more inclusive and psychologically safe environment.

Regularly assess psychological safety: Continuous improvement of an organisation’s psychological safety involves regular evaluation. Use surveys, focus groups, or other feedback mechanisms to assess your workplace’s psychological safety level. Use this information to make informed improvements.

Regular check-ins: Managers should have regular one-on-one check-ins with their team members to discuss progress, concerns, and career development. These meetings should provide a safe space for open communication.

Summary

Psychological safety is the cornerstone of a thriving workplace. A lack of psychological safety leads to fear, silence, stifled creativity, high stress, and disengagement. On the other hand, a psychologically safe workplace fosters open communication, constructive feedback, risk-taking, and inclusivity.

To cultivate psychological safety in your organisation, lead by example, provide training, establish clear expectations, encourage feedback channels, celebrate diversity, and regularly assess your progress. By taking these steps, you can create an environment where employees feel valued, heard, and empowered to contribute their best, ultimately leading to a more productive, engaged and happier workplace.

What is the level of psychological safety in your workplace? Is there anything you can do to improve psychological safety at work?

Feel free to contact us to support psychological safety in your workplace.

Lisa LaRue, MCareerDev,  RCDP, MAC

Lisa LaRue, MCareerDev, RCDP, MAC

Career Coach, EMCC-Accredited Master Practitioner Coach and CDI-Registered Career Development Professional with more than 20 years’ experience helping achieve successful and fulfilling careers.

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