Psychological Safety At Work: What It Is and Why It’s Important

You’ve probably made a fool of yourself at one point while talking to your colleagues by misquoting a phrase or stating inaccurate information. Depending on the scenario, the ordeal may have been either funny or outright embarrassing. But what has this got to do with psychological safety? Well, everything.

As more research on diversity and inclusion is done, senior management such as HR are beginning to agree that diversity of thought is beneficial to organizational development. Apart from groups that constitute people with different life experiences bringing forth valuable insights, they are also better placed to identify problems and provide creative solutions for them compared to a group that includes people with the same life experiences.

But what if people shy away from expressing their views for fear of rejection? What if they hold back from sharing innovative ideas because they feel uncomfortable speaking up? Sadly, many people in the workplace feel this way. A 2017 Gallup study found out that only 3 out of 10 employees feel that their opinions are valued at work. This study reiterates the need for organizational leadership to develop strategies that promote psychological safety at work. Before we look into those strategies, let’s dial back and define psychological safety. 

What is psychological safety at work?

A leading Harvard Business School researcher, Amy Edmondson, describes psychological safety as “the perception of the reaction that comes about by taking an interpersonal risk in a given context such as a workplace.”

The concept of psychological safety at work doesn’t mean that you should expect everyone to always agree with your opinions and be nice to you, regardless of your views. That’s far from it. It means that you should be willing to embrace disagreements and speak up, knowing that your colleagues have got your back the same way you have theirs.

According to a Google study (Project Aristotle) on team performance, the highest performing teams have psychological safety—the confidence that they won’t be punished for making a mistake. Numerous studies have shown that psychological safety at work allows employees to speak their minds, take risks moderately, and be creative and courageous enough to stick their necks out for their employers. All these attributes are recipes that can make your organization have a competitive edge in the industry.

Ways of creating psychological safety at work

To make your employees feel comfortable with their interpersonal risk-taking skills, you need to foster and create psychological safety within your organization. Here’s how you can do that: 

1. Set the scene for a psychologically safe environment

As cliche as it may sound, the first step you should take is to set up the stage for a psychologically safe workplace environment. Conduct a discussion with your team to help them acknowledge not only your shortcomings but theirs too. The objective of the discussion is not to blame-shift but to share ownership of the problems at hand.

During the discussion, make your team aware of what’s at stake and how vital it is that the solution to the problem is found.  You and your employees should agree that everyone must be clear and transparent about their needs at work and of the team jointly. More importantly, you should share the responsibility of succeeding and failing. 

2. Lead by example

Break the golden rule. You’ve probably heard the phrase, “treat others the same way you want them to treat you.” Well, psychological safety requires that you do the opposite. You need to treat your employees the way they’d like to be treated.

As a great leader, you should not be rigid and always want things to be done your way. Have the willingness to hear out the views of your employees without being overly dismissive. By developing a culture where you are willing to lend an ear to your team’s ideas, they’ll follow suit and not only value your insights but those of others within the same job groups as them. 

3. Promote healthy conflict

Let’s face it; it’s rare to find a group of people agreeing on a given subject matter without wanting to make even the smallest of adjustments. While conflict may be the riskiest of interpersonal endeavors, you should always strive to create conditions for the healthiest form of conflict.

You can limit conflict within your team by creating liberal communication and feedback channels and encouraging open communication amongst your team members. In short, don’t put in place draconian restrictions that limit communication with and amongst your employees. 

4. Establish ways of handling failures

Rather than punishing risk-taking and experimentation, you should encourage your employees to learn from their past mistakes and failures. Also, ensure that you openly recognize employees who learn from their mistakes and come up with great innovations or ideas in the long run. Taking this step will encourage innovation rather than sabotage it. 

5. Create a space for new ideas, even those that seem adventurous

Have the willingness to give all ideas a shot at being actualized so long as they show promise and are within the budgetary means of the organization. Encourage your employees to think outside the box. You never know; they may create the next big thing.

What is psychological safety at work when the work is virtual?

Today, many organizations have embraced a hybrid work environment. At first, promoting psychological safety when some of your employees are working remotely may seem challenging. For starters, how are you supposed to establish trust when meetings are scheduled in advance and conducted on a screen?

But, when you take a second look, you realize that psychological safety for remote workers is not only possible but essential. Given that psychological safety requires that your employees dare to be vulnerable, the virtual platforms present perfect opportunities for them to express their views. Also, these platforms afford them the time to think through their opinions before conveying them. Good communication with your team will be at the heart of creating psychological safety in the workplace, however it’s a leadership skill many leaders need to work on developing.

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