What Is Psychological Safety, Why It's Crucial, And Practical Ways To Improve It.
A healthy workplace culture of trust, respect, and collaboration is built on a secret ingredient called psychological safety. In a survey, 89% of employees said that psychological safety is essential. However, on the flip side, without it, you get a workplace that's full of fear, anxiety, and mistrust.
Let me give you an example to better illustrate my point.
Imagine working at a company where your coworkers don't trust each other. Everyone seems to be on edge, and any disagreement or criticism sparks defensive behavior and hostility. No one in your team is willing to take risks or speak up.
Even if you try to suggest something, your views are brushed off by senior leaders or your teammates. As a result, you are afraid to make mistakes or even ask for help or advice. You have started feeling isolated, causing stress, anxiety, and reduced productivity.
Sounds scary? This is how a lack of psychological safety at work feels or looks like.
I am sure you don't want your employees to experience such a toxic work culture at your organization. Let's see how we can turn the tables for you and help you understand all about psychological safety at work.
What is psychological safety?
Psychological safety refers to the feeling of knowing that you can voice your thoughts, feedback, disagreements, and opinions without hesitation. It is a shared belief that you won't be punished, rejected, or humiliated for taking the initiative or risks as a member of the team.
Amy Edmondson, who first invented the term psychological safety, has put forward the following psychological safety definition:
"An absence of interpersonal fear. When psychological safety is present, people are able to speak up with work-relevant content."
However, creating a culture of team psychological safety is a major concern for many companies these days. Shockingly, almost 24% of employees leave their job because they don't feel trusted, and 25% doubt their organization's ability to provide a safe work environment.
Thus, it’s evidently crucial to prioritize trust and safety in the workplace.
Why is psychological safety important in the workplace?
So far, you probably got the idea that a lack of psychological safety can have serious business repercussions. Now let's look at the positive outcomes psychological safety can bring to the plate-
"…psychological safety can make the difference between a satisfied customer and an angry, damage-causing tweet that goes viral; between nailing a complex medical diagnosis that leads to a patient's full recovery and sending a critically ill patient home too soon; between a near miss and a catastrophic industrial accident; or between strong business performance and dramatic, headline-grabbing failure."
- The Fearless Organization by Amy C. Edmondson.
Many innovative ideas go unsaid when you don’t empower your people to speak up. It also affects their creative problem-solving abilities, making team collaboration a distant dream.
In contrast with psychological safety, you can build a workplace where people are encouraged to share their diverse perspectives, take calculated risks and try new things.
And that's where the magic happens! Every day becomes a brainstorming session where employees come up with creative solutions and innovative ideas.
When you create a psychologically safe work environment, your employees are more likely to feel a sense of belonging. This can be a powerful motivator for sticking with your organization. According to Gallup, psychological safety cuts workplace turnover by 27%.
Moreover, psychologically safe environments often result in positive and supportive work culture. By creating an open, appreciative, supportive, and accepting work environment, you're sending a message that you care about your people. This can lead to increased job satisfaction and lower turnover rates.
Plus, who doesn't want to work in a place where they feel like they matter?
Research done by CCL shows that teams with high degrees of psychological safety reported displaying a higher level of performance and respect for their leaders. At the same time, they maintain lower levels of task and relationship conflict.
Having psychological safety at work is like having a close-knit group of friends who accept you for who you are. Thus it helps your employees to have better interpersonal relationships within the workplace and fosters better collaboration among employees.
This can lead to more open and honest discussions, better employee collaboration, and, ultimately, constructive conflict resolution. But that’s not all. A psychologically safe environment encourages giving and receiving feedback in a respectful and productive way. With such healthy workplace dynamics, even when disagreements arise, your employees are more likely to find creative solutions to workplace problems.
That means fewer "uh-oh" moments that could cost your company time and money.
Create a ripple effect
When you create a psychologically safe workplace for your employees, the benefits don't stop with your employees. It's like throwing a pebble into a pond.
The ripples keep spreading outwards, and the effects are pretty awesome! Your company culture gets better, and employees become more engaged.
Engaged employees are more likely to treat your customers with respect and kindness, leading to better customer satisfaction and loyalty. According to a survey, With every 2% increase in employee engagement, customer satisfaction rates increase by 1%.
When your customers are happy, they are more likely to stick around, give you positive reviews, and recommend your products or services to their friends and family.
In this way, building psychological safety at workplace can help you create a workplace culture every leader dreams of creating with a cycle of positive outcomes.
Google carried out a project called Project Aristotle. They basically studied a whopping 180 teams to figure out what makes the teams effective at Google.
And guess what they found? Among the 5 key findings, psychological safety stood out as the most significant element for successful team operation and efficiency.
Increase employee morale and happiness
Working among people who don't support you or value you can be mentally draining. It can have a significant toll on the mental wellness of your employees.
In contrast, when your employees are working in a psychologically safe ecosystem, they are less likely to feel stressed and frustrated. Feeling valued and supported in their workplace can also lead to improved employee satisfaction and overall employee morale.
And who doesn't want a happy, harmonious workplace like that?
How to Measure Psychological Safety
Psychological safety is "a condition in which one feels (a) included, (b) safe to learn, (c) safe to contribute, and (d) safe to challenge the status quo, without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized or punished in some way"
-T. R. Clark.
If you think implementing psychological safety at work is hard, then maintaining it is even harder. How do you know if your employees feel psychologically safe or not? If yes, what makes it so? And if not, what can be improved?
Well, why not start by measuring the present psychological safety levels at your organization? And then analyze the results to find the best solutions to improve it.
But how do you do that?
The first step will be an organization-wide employee survey with a psychological safety quiz. In addition, when you send the survey link, include a note on psychological safety and its importance.
Here are a few questions you can consider:
Here's a tips for you. Stay away from sending them emails with a survey link out of nowhere without informing them of the why. Throwing a barrage of random, unexpected, and out-of-context questions at them as such probably won't get you the answers you're looking for!
Instead, set the tone first. Arrange a quick meeting or take a few extra minutes after a pre-scheduled meeting. Initiate a quick discussion to educate them on psychological safety in teams and what you are trying to achieve with the survey.
How to create psychological safety at work?
As per research, 17.5% of employees feel they don’t voice their thoughts in the workplace.
It's high time leaders recognize the need for psychological safety and take measures to create a psychologically safe and respectful workplace.
Here’s how you can improve psychological safety at the workplace-
1. Respond with empathy.
As a leader, you must learn the skill to respond with empathy and coach your people to do the same.
Not sure about what leading with empathy mean?
Imagine you are a team leader at a tech company. One of your team members has been struggling with a personal issue affecting their work performance. It includes missing deadlines and lower-quality work.
A leader who is not leading with empathy might respond to this situation by reprimanding the team member and threatening disciplinary action. However, this might not be the right approach if you want your people to feel psychologically safe.
If you want to lead with empathy, take a different approach. Instead of assuming that the team member is just being lazy or unproductive, take the time to sit down with them.
Have an open and honest conversation about what's been going on. Make sure you understand their situation and needs and create an action plan with them to move forward.
In short, leading with empathy will empower you to understand and share the feelings of your people. Going forward, you can utilize this understanding to guide your leadership and decision-making.
Ecsell Institute surveyed over 36,000 employees to find out the relationship between psychological safety and managerial effectiveness, and the results were eye-opening.
According to the survey, when employees rated their managers as a 9 or 10 out of 10, they felt as safe as a baby koala in its mama's pouch, with a psychological safety score of a whopping 84%. But hold on to your seats because it's about to get bumpy!
When the overall score for managers was 6 or lower, the psychological safety score dropped to 36%. Ouch!
Here are a few action steps to help you get started on this journey of fostering empathy in the workplace-
Teach yourself and your leaders the art of listening.
Actively listen to your employees' or team members' needs and concerns.
Make yourself approachable and accessible to your people. Create an environment where your people feel comfortable to reach out to you in times of need and share their thoughts and concerns with you.
Incorporate empathy training or psychological safety training into your leadership training and onboarding process. Or have sessions to teach your people about the importance of being empathetic towards each other.
No employee would like their issues or feelings to get invalidated. Instead of passing judgment, acknowledge their feelings. If needed, put yourself in their else's shoes and consider their perspective when making decisions that affect them.
Letting your people know that you care about them and that their feelings and needs are valued can be a powerful tool to foster psychological safety in teams.
2. Create a culture of trust and respect.
Creating a culture of trust and respect is essential for building team psychological safety in the workplace.
Fostering a culture of trust and respect creates an environment where everyone works collaboratively to solve problems. It creates a foundation for open communication, learning, and growth and promotes the well-being of employees.
Embrace openness and vulnerability:
Encourage open and honest communication even when it's bad news. Create opportunities for employees to share their ideas and concerns in regular team meetings or one-on-one conversations. This includes voicing disagreements during meetings without being disrespectful or suggesting alternative solutions to a problem in meetings.
Be consistent in your actions and words. Be consistently transparent in your communication and follow through on your commitments.
Recognize good work:
Give your people the credit they deserve for the job well done, regardless of their role or level of experience. Publicly acknowledge their contributions, efforts, and achievements. Make recognition and appreciation a part of your company culture.
3. Create a Feedback loop.
Create a two-way feedback loop. Instead of criticism, offer your employees constructive feedback. At the same time, be open to accepting feedback from employees.
This will help you identify the loopholes and defects in the current organizational processes. Thus, giving you a chance to work on these aspects and make it a better place to work.
Feedback will also empower you with the necessary information to support your people with the resources they need to excel in their performance. You will be able to identify and resolve conflicts before they escalate. Feedback can also be a great tool for fostering a culture of continuous improvement.
By actively seeking feedback and responding with support, you can create a safe and supportive environment for your people. Over time, this can build trust and establish a feeling of psychological safety in teams.
Here are a few action steps for you to get started-
Organize anonymous pulse surveys and frequent check-ins to provide a safe and structured environment for your people to give and receive feedback, share concerns, and ask for support.
Welcome doubts and questions from your teams in a group setting.
Don't just ask for feedback and leave it at that. Take the time to analyze it and put it into action. If you don't act on feedback, your team may feel like their input doesn't matter, which can lead to a lack of trust. So, make sure to follow through on feedback to see real results!
Let's understand with an example-
Suppose you have arranged a regular weekly meeting to discuss progress, roadblocks, and feedback with your teams. During the meeting, a team member expresses concern about feeling overwhelmed with their workload and is unsure how to prioritize their tasks.
Don't stop at listening and acknowledging their concerns. Instead, offer solutions. This might include delegating tasks, re-prioritizing assignments, or providing additional resources to support the team member.
4. Promote inclusion and diversity.
Inclusion can create a sense of team psychological safety by ensuring that your employees are valued, respected, and supported for who they are. It demonstrates that their opinions and contributions are valued and considered. Thus making people feel safe to speak up, take risks, and be their authentic selves without fear of discrimination or negative consequences.
However, 65% of employees don’t consider their workplace as diverse and inclusive. Research shows that 24% of Hispanic and Black employees and 35% of Native Americans have reported facing discrimination in the workplace. Another Research by Pew Research Center sound that 42% of women employees in the US faced gender discrimination.
Such discrimination can create a culture of fear, mistrust, and disengagement in your organization. It can also lead to a lack of transparency and accountability and create a sense of isolation among employees.
To avoid such a work environment in your organization, here are a few things you can do-
Review and revise HR policies and procedures to ensure they are inclusive and equitable for all employees, regardless of their backgrounds.
Evaluate and re-address hiring practices to make them more inclusive and ensure that all candidates are given an equal opportunity to be considered for positions.
Provide mentorship, coaching, and training to your leaders and employees.
Provide the required resources to support employees with disabilities or other special needs.
Hold your leaders accountable to support the growth and development of employees from underrepresented groups.
Psychological safety plays a huge role in shaping your company's core values and culture. It makes your culture more dynamic, innovative, and inclusive. Building psychological safety is, therefore, not just about taking a few programs or policies. It is not a "one-and-done" approach and will take time and continuous effort from your side.
So be patient and take small steps every day to provide your employees the psychological safety they deserve and crave for.
1. What are the four stages of psychological safety?
According to Timothy R. Clarke, your employees can go through four stages of psychological safety, progressing from the first to the fourth. These stages are Inclusion Safety, Learner Safety, Contributor Safety, and Challenger Safety.
2. Mention an example of psychological safety at work.
Pixar, the famous animation studio, is a great example of creating a culture of psychological safety. Under Ed Catmull’s leadership, Pixar encourages its employees to be humble, communicate openly, be curious, and have honest discussions about weaknesses. This has resulted in a highly innovative and creative environment, leading to some of the most successful animated movies of all time.
3. Who defined psychological safety?
Psychological safety was first mentioned by MIT professors Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis, studying organizational change. But the term gained attention after Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson conducted extensive research on it and published a landmark paper in 1999. Now, psychological safety is a major buzzword in the world of management and team-building!
4. What are the barriers to psychological safety in the workplace?
To make your organization thrive, avoid these barriers to psychological safety-unconscious bias, hierarchy, lack of awareness, poor communication, only focusing on the wins, and authoritarian leadership.
5. What does a lack of psychological safety look like?
As Amy Edmondson mentioned in her book The Fearless Organisation, a lack of psychological safety may look like this: “Don’t want to look ignorant? Don’t ask questions…Don’t want to look incompetent? Don’t admit to mistakes or weaknesses…Don’t want to be called disruptive? Don’t make suggestions….”