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Natalia Rossingol

The Power of Psychological Safety in Building a Supportive and Safe Workplace

Want to transform your workplace into a hub of trust, openness, and innovation? Discover the incredible power of psychological safety and how to embody it.

To make a mistake out of inattentiveness is normal. To make it out of ignorance can be shameful. But to make a mistake consciously, out of fear that your remark about things going wrong would not be appreciated, is both painful and ridiculous.

When you cannot freely express your opinion, when you don’t feel comfortable disagreeing with your boss or suggesting a new solution, it’s a huge red flag. It means you don’t feel psychologically safe. And feeling unsafe, you won’t work to your full potential.   

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety can be broadly defined as an environment where people are comfortable being themselves. It’s a climate where they can share concerns and make mistakes without fear of embarrassment. Where they feel confident enough to speak up and sincerely express their thoughts, knowing they won’t be humiliated, blamed, or ignored. Where they respect and trust their colleagues, and feel free to offer candid feedback.

The studies dedicated to the importance of psychological safety can be traced back to the 1960-s, when Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis, professors of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, expressed the need for psychological safety for people to deal with uncertainty and organizational change at work.

In 1990, Boston University Professor William Kahn discovered that psychological safety fosters employee engagement. Then, in 2018, on the basis of 30-year research, Dr. Amy Edmondson, now a professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, published a book “The Fearless Organization”, where she explained psychological safety as a group-level phenomenon that needed to be created by leaders within their groups.

Edmondson defines the term "psychological safety" as “the belief that the work is safe for interpersonal risks.” She highlights that people working in psychologically safe workplaces know they can be punished for underperformance or policy violation. But they do not have fear of interpersonal relationships. They know they can express a potentially sensitive idea. They can draw attention to someone’s mistake, even if this is their boss. And it won’t cost them a job. 

According to Edmondson, the lack of psychological safety is detrimental not only to employee well-being but also to the future of your business. To promote psychological safety at work or not is not even an option.

Why psychological safety is important at work

We need to realize that psychological safety is not just a fancy term. It’s a condition that makes success possible. No matter what you do at work, psychological safety is an absolute must, if you truly care about your results.

Psychological safety enables people to stand out and speak up

It is not enough to hire skillful individuals – leaders must also create a psychologically safe work environment where these individuals could actually use their skills. A study conducted by Google, code-named "Project Aristotle", called psychological safety the most important factor impacting team effectiveness.

But at workplaces with low psychological safety, knowledgeable and skilled employees do not contribute as much as they can, or should.

They stay silent at most crucial moments, even though they know the right answers. They keep the best solutions to themselves and do not raise concerns. They never take risks and walk only on familiar paths. They simply waste their talent.  

What does this mean to business? In short, nothing good. In our uncertain and fast-changing world, if you do not adapt and find new solutions, you cannot survive. Innovation, risk-taking, and thinking out of the box – these are the news elephants that support the world of business. And innovations are impossible without failures.

Psychological safety encourages creativity and boosts team performance

For companies to become truly competitive, they must encourage employees to raise concerns, openly discuss issues, disagree with colleagues, including the boss, and make mistakes. This will help optimize work processes and benefit team-building. Employees will feel more committed, and the quality of the product or service they work on will be improved.

But this doesn’t happen in a psychologically unsafe workplace. Feeling unsafe, people do not express sensitive or potentially wrong ideas, even though these can prove to be the best options. They do not dare say something their boss might not like, because they do not want to lose a job. Their talent and ambition are blocked by fear. It’s a waste of resources.

The consequences might be very sad. Dissatisfied customers, spreading unpleasant rumors about your business. Patients, released from treatment too early, before they fully recover. Sometimes, lost lives, as a result of human error that wasn’t prevented. Out of these, tarnished reputation is the least evil.

Psychological safety reduces turnover and costs

Leaders simply cannot afford workplaces that are not psychologically safe. Fear of self-expression at work negatively impacts performance, and poor results are not a good sign for the future of the company. Low psychological safety leads to high turnover and decreases costs related to recruitment and absenteeism.     

10 steps toward psychological safety in the workplace

For the most part, those responsible for creating psychological safety are leaders – managers and team leads. The tips below will help leaders to create a higher level of psychological safety at work:

1. Make psychological safety an underlying principle

Develop a culture of psychological safety. Explain to your employees that it is directly connected to team engagement and commitment, and helps achieve goals.

Create an environment where people show empathy and care for each other, get encouraged to express new ideas, and feel free to ask for support. Organize icebreakers to strengthen the relationships between individuals and teams and overcome tension, if necessary.   

Pay attention to see if some of the team members feel less safe. If you notice any patterns, or if you notice that the level of psychological safety varies significantly within the group, try to understand the reason behind it, and take action to improve the situation.

2. Let people speak up

Make it safe to tell the truth. Explain that when the stakes are high, it’s absolutely necessary to step in. No time or need to stay shy and silent when you see something wrong is happening, or is about to happen. It could be a matter of life and death, literally. 

To create a psychologically safe workplace and let people open up, leaders must work on their communication skills. This means two things: being curious and listening carefully. For a good leader, it’s unacceptable to miss out on team members' input.

Be willing to listen when someone is brave enough to say something.  Practice active listening, making sure people feel they are heard and valued:

  • Repeat what has been said, paraphrasing it with your own words.
  • Ask open-ended questions, encouraging people to share more information.
  • If some individuals tend to stay silent out of shyness, make sure to ask for their opinion.

Also, be curious. Do not render ideas worthless just because you think differently. Accept the fact that you do not know everything, and your team members’ thoughts and expertise could be valuable contributions. Learn from your team.

3. Measure psychological safety in your team

While it might be relatively easy to spot that certain individuals have some psychological safety problems, managers can erroneously suppose that the overall situation is good – even when it’s not. So how can you know for sure that your workplace is psychologically safe?

Fortunately, psychological safety can be measured. The most popular tools are surveys, where you provide a list of items that team members need to mark, on a scale from 1 to 5 or from 1 to 7 (from strongly agree to strongly disagree), and make a conclusion based on their answers. The examples of items include the following:

  • If you make a mistake, it’s used against you.
  • People on your team reject others for being different.
  • Your talents and skills are utilized on this team.
  • People on the team rarely discuss aspects of the project which are at risk.
  • People on your team have to try hard not to offend when giving feedback.

Another method of detecting the presence or absence of psychological safety is to provide team members with a hypothetical scenario and ask them what they or their colleagues would do, keeping their answers confidential. This will pour some light on the team members’ relationships, helping to see if people feel psychologically safe.

4. Promote dialogue

Make an intentional effort to improve the conversational skills within your team. This will help people build stronger relationships and have a positive overall effect on team effectiveness. Having a dialogue does not equal making a decision, yet, it is the first step.

You cannot make people talk – when you do, it’s counterproductive. But you can create conditions for them to open up. Here’s some tips on how to have a productive dialogue:

  • Ask questions, but carefully. A well-formulated, open-ended question can direct the flow of the conversation. Yet, you cannot rely exclusively on questions – if you do so, at some point your counterpart will feel like under interrogation, forced to interact with you.

After all, you can simply ask a person to tell you what they think about a particular subject. This will show your sincere interest and respect.

  • Remember about non-verbal communication. 93% of communication occurs through body language. Eye contact, smiles, the distance between people talking – it all matters in a dialogue. Looking for non-verbal cues will help you understand if what people say is consistent with what they feel. For example, it’s quite obvious that a person does not fully agree with you if he or she takes a “closed” body position and doesn’t look you in the eye.
  • Do not interrupt. This sends a signal you’re busy or, what’s even worse, know the subject better. It’s very important to let people finish their thoughts. Impatience is disrespectful and ruins a dialogue.
  • Disagree softly. It’s wonderful when people agree on something, but in professional environments, disagreements are more than common. You have a right to disagree, of course – but do it with respect and tolerance. Ask people to show the reasoning behind their arguments. Your opinion might not be the only truth.    

These tips will be useful for improving communication between leaders and their teams, and they can also be used as training techniques to promote dialogue among team members and foster psychological safety. 

5. Handle failure wisely

Failure is essential for learning since it can be a valuable experience. This is why leaders must make it safe to fail, framing work as a learning process.

However, in different kinds of work failure can play a different role. Amy Edmondson divides failures into three categories based on the nature of work, and gives recommendations for team leaders to use in each situation:

  • Preventable failures. These are mistakes that result from deviations from a known repetitive process – for example, when someone forgets to put on safety glasses and this leads to an eye injury. These failures are typically caused by skill and attention deficiencies, so it’s vital that people correct their behavior. In this case, leaders should show appreciation to those who noticed the mistake.
  • Complex failures. When some novel factors impact familiar situations, there might happen a system breakdown (like, at hospital or on an aircraft.) These failures often include both problems of vigilance and teamwork, and, most of the time, can be avoided. For this reason, they should not be celebrated.  
  • Intelligent failures. These are unsuccessful trials - for example, product designs. Since they are the results of experimentation and risk-taking, they should always be celebrated, to encourage other workers to experiment – and even fail.

The idea of encouraging and even celebrating failure may seem unusual. Since childhood, many of us have developed a subconscious belief, or rather fear, that failures will be punished.

But encouraging failure, you welcome innovation. So remind your people that failures will happen, and make sure they analyze their mistakes and learn from them. Be candid, expressing both disappointment with preventable failures and appreciation for intelligent ones. 

6.  Resolve conflicts productively

Conflicts typically have negative connotations, as they are associated with toxic behaviors and even scandals. However, conflicts can be constructive, if they involve sincere dialogue. In a psychologically safe workplace, conflicts can be a platform where the best solutions are found.  

For a conflict to be productive, it’s important to spot moments when your safety is at risk. There are certain indicators that signal that you’ve got safety problems while having a conversation:

  • You can be confronted with verbal violence, which includes controlling (when what you think or say is controlled by another person), labeling (being dismissed under a certain category), and attacking (when you’re literally threatened).   
  • You can also be confronted with silence, which is expressed in the forms of masking (when your opponents disguise their true opinions), avoiding (when they ignore issues altogether), and withdrawing (when they leave the room).

Conflicts may be an uncomfortable experience, as it can be hard to admit your ideas are not the only ones that deserve attention. But paradoxically, avoiding conflicts is a sign of an unhealthy environment, where problems are left to boil up.

Resolve conflicts in a respectable manner, promoting constructive debate and setting norms for managing conflicting perspectives. 

7. Lead by example

Leaders, both senior management and team leaders, are role models who set the tone for the whole company. You cannot expect certain behaviors from your people if you don’t demonstrate them yourself. It’s unfair and demotivating.

Be approachable. Ask for feedback. Be open to suggestions and opinions which are different from yours – remember that your employees might be better experts in some areas. Show empathy and ask for help when you need it. Don’t feel ashamed to apologize. This way, you will encourage team members to develop psychological safety.

➡️ Continue reading our guide on how to lead by example.

8. Be vulnerable

According to Brene Brown, the author of “Dare to Lead”, vulnerability is nothing but weakness – even more, it is a mark of true strength. The rule of thumb is that leaders are not supposed to show any emotions. They are expected to put on “armor” - self-protection mechanisms that do not let you look vulnerable. Striving for perfectionism, resorting to criticism, and being a knower instead of a learner are demonstrations of these self-protecting behaviors. 

But leaders are humans, and for humans, it’s natural to feel fear and doubt. This is why leaders need to be brave and expose their imperfections. So admit your own fallibility. Admit that you don’t know something, and be ready to learn. Treat team members as people, not like impersonal links of your work system – instead, be supportive and compassionate.

This way, you will set an example for your team members, inspiring them to be vulnerable – and showing them it’s okay to be disappointed and fail.  

9. Increase psychological safety in virtual workplaces

After the pandemic, more teams moved to hybrid work, combining work at the office with virtual one. Working remotely, however, doesn’t mean you feel safe by default.

So what can team leaders do to make their teams feel psychologically safer?

Schedule one-on-one meetings. This will underline that you care for your team and invest in the relationship. Make sure team members share feedback. Also, raise topics that are not work-related, to make communication more personal.  

10. Celebrate wins

Appreciate your team members' effort to create psychological safety. Give them credit every time they take a risk, suggest new ideas, or admit a mistake. This way, you will encourage such behavior in others. 

The 4 stages of psychological safety

In his book “The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation”, Dr. Timothy Clark described the model of psychological safety consisting of 4 components. This model recognizes that we’re humans first, and employees – second. Progressing through these stages, individuals within teams can feel free to speak up and contribute to the result.

psychological safety stages

Stage 1. Inclusion safety

At this stage, a person tries to satisfy a basic human need – to connect and belong. You feel safe, when you know you can bring your authentic self to work. This type of safety is hard to achieve in a hierarchical environment.

Stage 2. Learner safety

People feel safe to experiment, make mistakes, and ask questions. The leader’s response to bad news will shape the feeling of safety. When failures are punished, people tend to become defensive and passive, which prevents them from correcting their mistakes.

Stage 3. Contributor Safety

This is a feeling of safety that allows you to use your skills and contribute to the result. It will be reinforced if people are invited to think beyond their individual roles, which gives them a chance to contribute on a larger scale. The arrogance of the team leader, team bias, or discrimination can prevent this type of safety and lower team performance.

Stage 4. Challenger safety

At this level, people feel safe speaking up the truth, even to the manager. They feel confident to suggest changes and question the ideas of others. They know they will not be reprimanded and will not lose their position.

Without psychological safety, intellectual conflicts that happen at this stage turn into interpersonal ones.

In psychologically safe work environments, team members are not afraid to be themselves. Their resources, like mental energy and skills, are used to reach goals, and not for self-protection. For a business, investment in building psychological safety is not a waste of time. It’s a key to success.   

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