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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.

Communication is king. In our personal lives, good communication can make the difference between healthy and toxic relationships. The same logic applies in the workplace.

Everyone should feel comfortable to share their thoughts and opinions in work environments, but too often, this isn’t the case. When an employee feels unable to bring ideas to the table or point out risks, either out of fear of being redressed or dismissed, this means they don’t feel psychologically safe.

Numerous studies have shown that psychological safety is key to building a safe and supportive workplace. But what does this term mean, and how can you build a psychologically safe environment for your team?

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety can be broadly defined as an environment where people are comfortable being themselves. A psychologically safe workplace represents a climate where employees feel confident speaking, offering candid feedback, and making mistakes without fear of being humiliated, unfairly punished, or ignored.

The first studies dedicated to the importance of psychological safety were completed in the 1960's, when Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis, professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, expressed the need for psychological safety for people to deal with uncertainty and organizational change at work.

In the years since, numerous researchers have built on these findings. In 1990, Boston University professor William Kahn discovered that psychological safety fosters employee engagement. Then, in 2018, Dr. Amy Edmondson, now a professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, published “The Fearless Organization”, where she defined 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 a business's future. Promoting psychological safety is a must if you want your business to succeed long-term.

Why psychological safety is important at work

Psychological safety is not just another buzzword. 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 team and their results.

Psychological safety enables people to stand up and speak out

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

Workplaces with low psychological safety fail to encourage knowledgeable and skilled employees to contribute effectively.

If they fear repercussions from speaking up, they may stay silent at crucial moments, even in instances where they have the right answers. They keep the best solutions to themselves and do not raise concerns, avoid taking risks, and walk only on familiar paths. In other words, they simply waste their talent. Or rather, the business fails to leverage the knowledge they have at their disposal. 

What does this mean for businesses? 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 what will drive businesses forward. And innovation is impossible without some failure along the way.

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 valued and committed, and the quality of their work will be improved.

But this doesn’t happen in a psychologically unsafe workplace. Feeling unsafe, people do not take risks with their ideas, even though these potentially outside-of-the-box suggestions are the best options. They dare not say something their boss might not like, because they do not want to lose their job.

Not only are their talent and ambition placed on lockdown due to fear, but this can have negative consequences for the business long-term.

Failing to innovate can lead to customers becoming dissatisfied, while poor internal practices may mean ex-employees spread unpleasant rumors about an organization.

Psychological safety reduces turnover and costs

Leaders simply can't afford to run workplaces that are not psychologically safe. A culture of fear stifles individual self-expression at work, leading to high turnover and increased costs associated with 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. So, what can you do to make your workplace more psychologically safe? Create a higher level of psychological safety at work by following these ten steps:

1. Make psychological safety an underlying principle

To develop a culture of psychological safety, you need to make it an underlying principle across the business. You can do this by

  • Explaining to your employees that psychological safety is directly connected to team engagement and commitment, and helps achieve goals.
  • Encouraging an environment where people show empathy and care for each other e.g. showing support for new ideas, and providing help when someone asks.
  • Organize icebreakers to strengthen the relationships between individuals and teams and overcome tension, if necessary.
  • Paying attention to patterns within the workforce and taking action to improve the situation.

2. Let people speak up

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.It’s unacceptable to miss out on team members' input because you didn’t leave room for them to talk or you made them scared to contribute.

We explored this concept in a recent webinar, with two experts weighing in on the importance of open communication in the workplace. As put by author Ed Frauenheim, “One of the features of psychological safety is that everyone roughly shares the mic.” Frauenheim believes it’s the role of team leaders to ensure that everyone has a chance to speak up, saying, “Let’s make sure everyone can be heard here and that no one person dominates.”

Referring to a recent study on the markers of a psychologically safe environment, staffing expert Edwin Jansen added, “One of the measures there is equal to talking time. Another marker is being able to ask dumb questions. Another thing is to be able to put out your craziest ideas and to not be persecuted for that.”

He went on to share how his business improved psychological safety:

We did equal talking time training for everyone. We had different rules in place, things like ‘Three Before Me.’ So managers or outspoken extroverts were told that every time there’s a question, three people need to speak before I’m able to speak.

What can we learn from this? 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.

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.

Make it safe to tell the truth. Explain that when the stakes are high, it’s absolutely necessary to step in. There’s no need to stay silent when you notice something is going or about to go wrong. 

3. Measure psychological safety in your team

You may think it’s easy to identify psychological safety problems, but 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 that are at risk.
  • People on your team have to try hard not to offend when giving feedback.

Another method of identifying 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 shed some light on inter-team dynamics, helping to uncover who does and doesn’t 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 encourage team effectiveness. Having a dialogue does not equal making a decision, but it's a good first step.

You cannot force people to 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 help 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.

Try simply asking a person to tell you what they think about a particular subject. This will show your sincere interest and respect, and provide an opportunity for them to share their thoughts and opinions.

  • Remember 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 they take a “closed” body position and don't look you in the eye.
  • Do not interrupt. This sends a signal you’re too busy to listen or, worse, believe that you know the subject better. It’s very important to let people finish their thoughts. Impatience is disrespectful and ruins a dialogue.
  • Disagree gently. 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 can be used as training techniques to promote dialogue among team members, improve communication with leaders, and foster psychological safety. 

5. Handle failure wisely

Failure provides valuable learning experiences. 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 when handling different situations:

  • Preventable failures: these are mistakes that result from deviations from a known repetitive process – for example, when someone forgets to QA a document before sharing it with a client. 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 and flagged the mistake. Such mistakes can be prevented with effective training and checklists.
  • Uncertain, complexity-related failures: in an uncertain work environment where change is common, total system failures can occur. Hospitals and start-ups are good examples of such workplaces. Small process failures are somewhat inevitable, but consequential failures can be avoided by rapidly identifying and fixing the issue.
  • Intelligent failures: these are unsuccessful trials - for example, product designs that don't work out. 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. 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

"Conflict" typically has 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 psychological safety is at risk. There are certain indicators that signal that you’ve got safety problems while having a conversation:

  • Verbal violence: including controlling behavior (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).   
  • 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).

Conflict may be uncomfortable. But, paradoxically, avoiding conflicts is a sign of an unhealthy environment, where problems are left to boil up.

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

7. Lead by example

Leaders, both those in 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. And lead by example. Experts recommend showing yourself to be open to suggestions and opinions which are different from yours – remember that your employees are experts in their fields. Show empathy and ask for help when you need it. And don’t feel ashamed to apologize when you slip up. 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 Brené Brown, the author of “Dare to Lead”, vulnerability is anything but weakness – even more, it is a mark of true strength. The rule of thumb is that leaders are not supposed to show any emotion. They are expected to put on “armor” - self-protection mechanisms that stop them from appearing vulnerable. Striving for perfectionism, defaulting 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 by being honest when you don’t know something, and be ready to learn.

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. While remote work offers many benefits, remote workers often lack psychological safety.

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

  • Schedule one-on-one meetings. This will underline that you care for your team and invest in the relationship.
  • Provide opportunities for team members to share feedback. 
  • Discuss topics that aren't work-related, to make communication more personal. 

10. Celebrate wins

Appreciate your team members' efforts 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 outlined the four components that make up psychological safety. This model recognizes that we’re humans first, and employees second. By ensuring all four of these types of psychological safety are present in the workplace, leaders can encourage their employees to speak up.

psychological safety stages

Stage 1. Inclusion safety

Inclusion is a basic human need most workers will try to satisfy. They want 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 team 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 feel comfortable using your skills and contributing at work. By inviting people to think beyond their individual roles and contribute on a larger scale, leaders reinforce this type of safety

On the other hand, 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 the truth, even to their manager. They feel confident to suggest changes and question the ideas of others. They know they will not be reprimanded and will not risk their position.

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

Final thoughts

The benefits of championing psychological safety are two-fold: employees are happier working in supportive and safe environments, and businesses discover a new key to success.

It’s important to remember that in psychologically safe work environments, employees aren’t afraid to be themselves. Instead of wasting valuable energy stressing about upcoming meetings or protecting their well-being after yet another disastrous call with their boss, they can direct their skills toward delivering great work and reaching company goals.

Putting these practices into practice may feel overwhelming, but we trust that you’ll love seeing your employees’ satisfaction rise alongside the business’s overall efficiency.

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