How to Create Psychological Safety in the Workplace

November 29, 2021

Psychological safety

A lack of psychological safety in organizations is one of the main reasons for high employee turnover, reduced team dynamics, lack of productivity, and poor performance.

Yet despite this, many organizations still don’t prioritize it. Nor do they equip their managers with the tools and knowledge to improve it.

So, how exactly do you create psychological safety in the workplace? How do you ensure that your employees feel comfortable bringing their full selves to work every day, and how do you ensure that they’re empowered to asks questions and challenge the status quo?

Ultimately, how do you make sure there is enough trust amongst team members for them to have the conversations that drive higher performance outcomes?

Throughout this article, we’ll not only answer these questions, but we’ll also discuss the management behaviors that help can help boost psychological safety in your company.

What is psychological safety?

Amy Edmondson, author of The Fearless Organization, defines psychological safety as the understanding that you won’t be punished or ridiculed for speaking up, for asking questions, challenging ideas, voicing concerns, or admitting mistakes. 

Psychological safety in the workplace, more specifically, is a shared belief by members of the same team that others on the team won’t reject you, punish you or humiliate you for speaking up. 

When you have psychological safety in the workplace, people feel confident and comfortable bringing their whole selves to work. 

How psychological safety affects team performance

If you want to improve team performance, you need the team to have total trust and belief that they won’t be punished if they make a mistake.

Having psychological safety in your workplace allows teams to take moderate risks where they otherwise might not. It gives them courage to speak their mind, to be more creative, to be more vulnerable, to stick their neck out without fear of repercussions. And these are all behaviors that lead to market breakthroughs. 

Both Amy Edmondson and Google found in their separate studies into what makes a great team, isn’t that the most successful teams had more senior people, or that they had the highest IQs or that they made the least number of mistakes. In fact, the most successful teams made the most mistakes. 

Why?

Because a workplace with psychological safety at its heart has an environment where people don’t feel afraid to take risks, and taking risks leads to innovation. 

Psychological safety is the gateway to high performing teams. 

Amy Edmondson's work

Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, is an expert in teaming, psychological safety, and organizational learning. Amy researches organizational behaviour, and for the last 25 years has been teaching MBA students how to engage and inspire people to bring their full self to work. 

Psychological safety isn’t a one and done practice. According to Amy, you need to put in work before, during and after to build psychological safety. 

  1. Before. Before you begin building psychological safety, you need to set the scene. This is where you inform team members that what you’re about to do has never been done before. By doing this, you’re explicitly stating you don’t have a pre-existing formula to fall back on. You’re framing what you’re about to do as ‘whatever happens, we need your input and there are no wrong answers’. This is where you’re letting people know that there are high stakes and all input is gladly received. 

  2. During. While you’re actively in the building psychological safety stage, says Amy, you need to proactively ask questions. And keep asking questions. You need to continuously ask questions while encouraging team members to also ask questions. Lead the way in being curious, advises Amy. In the workplace there are too few genuine questions asked. You need your teams to treat meetings like the opportunities for learning they are. Meetings are the perfect platform to learn from one another and ask questions about anything they don’t understand. 

  3. After. ‘After’ isn’t actually after, says Amy, because you shouldn’t ever stop working on building psychological safety in the workplace. You don’t want to lose ground you’ve made, and so while you’re ‘maintaining’ your gains, you should try and respond positively and productively, even if you don’t like what has been said, or you don’t agree with it, to everything team members say. If you don’t, you won’t hear from them again. Your responses have to be two things: appreciative and forward looking - i.e. where can you go from there. 
Google's Project Aristotle

Codenamed Project Aristotle in tribute to Aristotle’s quote, "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts" (Google researchers believed employees can do more working together than alone), Google wanted to know: “What makes a team effective at Google?

Using input from across the globe, the research team selected 180 teams to study, (115 project teams in engineering and 65 pods in sales), with a mix of both high and low performing teams. For 2 years the study looked at how team composition and team dynamics impacted team effectiveness. 

The results revealed that team effectiveness is less about who is on the team, and more about how the team works together.

Out of the 5 key dynamics that high performing teams had, psychological safety was the number one factor (followed by dependability, structure and clarity, meaning, and impact).

The 4 stages of psychological safety at work

Psychological safety at work begins with a feeling of belonging.

Employees need to feel they’re accepted before they can begin improving their organization. 

According to Dr. Timothy Clark, author of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation, there are 4 stages employees have to pass through before they feel confident enough to speak up at work or challenge what’s been said. 

  • Stage 1 – Inclusion Safety: this satisfies the basic human need to feel connected and to belong. In this stage, employees feel safe to be themselves and are accepted for who they are. All of who they are, including unique attributes and defining characteristics.
  • Stage 2 – Learner Safety: this satisfies our need to learn and grow. In this stage, employees feel safe exchanging in the learning process. They feel confident asking questions, giving and receiving feedback, experimenting, and making mistakes, safe that they aren’t going to be punished or humiliated.
  • Stage 3 – Contributor Safety: this satisfies our need to make a difference. This is when employees feel safe using their skills and abilities to make a meaningful contribution at work.
  • Stage 4 – Challenger Safety: this satisfies our need to make things better. It’s when employees feel safe speaking up and challenging the status quo when they believe there’s an opportunity to change or improve the situation.

How to create psychological safety in the workplace

Have a two-way dialogue

Create a liberal pathway that enables conversation between leadership and employees. Provide channels for feedback and encourage employees to freely speak their mind.

Feedback shouldn’t be a one way affair, it should be a two way dialogue where employees understand that speaking up, identifying problems and challenging the status quo benefits the organization as a whole. 

Show frequent appreciation

If you want your teams to frequently share their thoughts and ideas, encourage managers to show them frequent appreciation when they do so. Even when they don’t agree with what’s being said, suspend judgement.

Managers don’t need to act on every suggestion though, so thank people for contributing and encourage further contributions. 

Establish and build trust

Trust, like respect, is not a given, it’s earned. Managers should therefore work to establish trust in their team, and both HR and the leadership team should work to establish it in the workplace as a whole.

Employees who trust one another and the leadership team are more likely to be open, honest, collaborative and constructive, all of which feeds innovation and productivity. 

Show empathy

Demonstrate concern for team members and ask how they’re doing. Show concern outside of the workplace. Get into the habit of checking in with employees, of showing interest in them as people, not just colleagues.

This simple act helps team members feel more comfortable showing up as their whole selves, because they feel that you appreciate them as individuals, not just employees.

Encourage managers to include their teams in decision making

Actively solicit feedback and welcome questions when you’re making a decision. Ask for different viewpoints, ask people to be Devil’s advocates, ask them to voice considerations you might not have thought of. Pause and give people space and time to think and answer before you move on. And be open to the feedback you receive. Be appreciative of what is said. 

Approach creativity differently

Rather than have team members present their finished ideas, build up a culture where employees feel comfortable sharing half baked, incomplete work that comes together and grows through collaborative development.

The creative process is one built on trust and openness, where team members don’t feel ashamed with unfinished work, rather it’s viewed as a jumping off point. 

Promote healthy conflict

Conflict shouldn’t be avoided in the workplace. If you create psychological safety it forms an environment where team members feel safe debating ideas, rather than judging one another. 

Treat others as they want to be treated

When it comes to creating psychological safety, treat others how they want to be treated and create an environment in which they can thrive.

The only way you can do that, though, is to get to know them, by taking the time to check in, find out how they prefer to communicate, what type of feedback best suits them etc.

Promote self-awareness

To begin building psychological safety in the workplace, team members need to be self aware. But in order to feel safe being self aware at work, they need to see leadership being self aware first.

By recognizing how you think and behave as a leader, and acknowledging that it might be different from other people, you can uncover biases that might prevent team members from speaking up.

When you’re self aware, it empowers you to adjust your emotional responses, allowing you to react in a positive and productive way that encourages more open discussion. 

Own up to mistakes

Failure is frightening whoever it happens to. As a leader, you can reduce team members’ fear by being the first to own up to mistakes.

Celebrate your failures as learning experiences. Run exercises where you ask team members to share a time when things didn’t work out as planned and what they learned from it.

Doing so will help reinforce the message that no one will be punished for making a mistake, and help team members feel confident taking risks, and speaking out. 

How Saberr supports psychological safety

A lack of psychological safety has huge ramifications for businesses. Low psychological safety is detrimental to team performance, innovation, learning, and individual success. 

Your leaders have the power to enable employees' success. When you build psychological safety in the workplace you encourage employees to take risks, to speak up, to share their learnings, to spark their team’s innovation and creativity, and to push boundaries. 

At Saberr, we provide managers with the guidance and resources to achieve all of this and more. We provide meeting templates, courses and smart tips that support them with having the right development conversations, we provide interactive team exercises that help build trust, and we provide the tools needed to run more inclusive and effective team meetings.

All of this plays a key role in helping to create psychological safety.

If you’d like more information about how Saberr can help you build psychological safety in your workplace, you can view the platform here

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