7 Questions to Determine How Psychologically Safe Your Employees Feel

How tense and unforgiving a workplace you have could impact the success of your company. Not making mistakes is always best, but employees should feel they can take calculated risks, and occasionally have an off day, without fearing an immediate emotional lashing is coming.

Anthony Hood, Ph.D., an associate professor of management in the University of Alabama at Birmingham Collat School of Business, recently noted the importance of making employees feel safe, according to Matt Windsor in a post on the University of Alabama at Birmingham Website

Hood recommends employees consider these questions in evaluating how psychologically safe, a shared measure of safety for a team to express interpersonal risk-taking, they feel at work:

  • If you make a mistake on your team, is it held against you?
  • Are you able to bring up problems and tough issues?
  • Do people on the team sometimes reject others for being different?
  • Is it safe to take a risk?
  • Is it difficult to ask other team members for help?
  • Do people on the team deliberately act to undermine your efforts?
  • Are your unique skills and talents valued and utilized?

The key is training managers to differentiate between an employee with a good track record, who occasionally makes a mistake or takes a risk that doesn’t work out, and a chronically poor performer.

An interesting phenomenon I’ve noticed is companies providing a sense of security for the wrong employees. There are those who are held to a lower standard than others, so frequent missed deadlines and sub-par work are explained away and rationalized rather than acted upon. 

When the need arises to take action after an employee makes a many-times-repeated mistake, what is the best way to approach it? The first step should be avoiding public chastisement. The manager should take the employee into a private room, and frame the mistake as part of a pattern rather than an isolated incident. That way, the employee is unable to come away with the impression that he or she is being held to unfair standards, or that the manager hasn’t given him or her enough leeway to safely make mistakes.

It’s important for managers to make sure the employee who made the mistake doesn’t feel a sense of injustice or confusion about why he or she is being taken aside and spoken to. Employees who feel they have been wronged by the manager are quick to share their grievances with peers. That can result in a whole team of disgruntled employees. 

When there is no pattern of mistakes, risks that didn’t work out can be teachable moments in which, leaving the employee’s name out of it, the manager reviews the mistake with the whole work group, discussing where the employee went wrong. If the employee is open to it, he or she can address the work group personally, noting where the problem in logic or calculation occurred and giving recommendations, so a co-worker doesn’t make the same mistake. 

The security to be different and creative also is essential to innovation and invention. Some workplaces emphasize conformity in dress, expression, and ideas. The challenge is creating a workplace in which employees feel they can share even seemingly outlandish ideas. They should feel their different perspective will be valued rather than judged. Beyond particular ideas, creative people need to feel that their personality is accepted at work. If you feel the need to hide who you are at the office, then you aren’t bringing the total power of yourself to work. The part you’re afraid of being judged for may be the same part that’s capable of dreaming up and developing a revolutionary product or service. 

How do you give employees the psychological security to take risks and dream big?