Whether your organization is planning to bring employees back to the workplace full time in 2022 or continue to offer remote and hybrid options, addressing psychological safety is an essential element in creating a healthy, productive, and inclusive work culture.
What Is Psychological Safety?
Psychological safety is a shared belief that the work environment is safe to speak up, raise concerns, offer ideas, and admit mistakes, says Dr. Amy C. Edmondson, professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School and psychological safety expert.
In the workplace, psychological safety creates an environment where people are comfortable being genuine and honest and feel heard, valued, and respected. And that starts with leaders who welcome candor, invite employees to say what’s on their mind, and listen and respond with a positive attitude.
Why Does Psychological Safety Matter?
Organizations that don’t foster psychological safety miss out on the creativity, energy, and productivity of employees who aren’t afraid of failing, being ignored, voicing a dissenting opinion, asking for help, or giving honest feedback.
Psychological safety is also one of the building blocks of inclusion. Without experiencing a sense of belonging, how can employees bring their whole selves to work and be inspired to thrive and succeed?
Further, a lack of psychological safety can take its toll on employees’ mental and physical health, causing them to leave and take their talents. Since the pandemic, employee burnout and turnover have escalated. A recent survey of U.S. workers found that only 26 percent felt psychologically safe during the pandemic and experienced higher burnout, stress, and loneliness.
Helping Employees Feel Comfortable and Safe to Speak Up
We conducted a survey of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) leaders in which 61 percent of the respondents said they were only “somewhat confident” that their employees felt a sense of belonging, inclusion, and psychological safety at work. This is a concerning number in light of these factors’ critical impact on creativity, productivity, and retention. Leaders have a unique role in influencing team dynamics and success for organizations committed to increasing their employees’ psychological safety at work.
5 Steps Leaders Can Take to Foster More Psychological Safety
- Own up to your own mistakes, shortcomings, and limitations, and think about how you react to others. When leaders acknowledge their own mistakes and react respectfully and supportive when others make mistakes, it demonstrates to team members that it’s a safe environment for the team to learn and grow.
- Focus on what team members say and what they don’t. Be aware of nonverbal cues that signal stress and uncertainty, such as facial expressions, fidgeting, and lack of eye contact. Leaders can pick up on nuances by practicing the 3 A’s of active listening:
- Attention – Minimize distractions such as checking text messages.
- Attitude – Go into conversations with an open mind.
- Adjustment – Be willing to change and adapt to the speaker’s train of thought.
- Make it a habit to ask for feedback. Especially in a remote environment, where it’s too easy to keep the mute button on, encourage all team members to share their viewpoints. If these differ from the larger group or leader, it’s especially important to acknowledge your appreciation for the feedback. It’s not easy for employees to feel comfortable speaking up with a dissenting viewpoint, and the team will take their cue from leaders’ reactions to these situations.
- Inspire respectful debate (without making it personal) as a productive way to explore ideas and creative approaches to problems. This signals to the team that leaders value all employees and diverse points of view. Nurturing a culture of psychological safety is the antidote to a toxic work culture in which employees avoid challenging the status quo because they fear being criticized, embarrassed, or punished.
- Measure psychological safety to find out what’s working and what isn’t. From anonymous surveys to regular one-on-one and team discussions, leaders should prioritize assessing whether team members feel they can speak up, raise concerns, and admit mistakes. This builds trust, increases employee engagement, and uncovers areas that need improving.
How Can Psychological Safety Training Help?
Training employees and managers on what psychological safety is and why it’s essential is a proactive step organizations can take to remove barriers to honest communication and improve team performance. Practical behavior-focused training turns concepts such as psychological safety, empathy, trust, and transparency into relatable learning experiences that can motivate employees to engage in open and ongoing conversations and collaboration.
Psychological safety is at the heart of many of the critical challenges facing organizations in 2022: preventing employee burnout and high turnover; improving employee well-being; and advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion. By learning and practicing the supportive behaviors of psychological safety, leaders can empower employees to voice their opinions, share their experiences, and inspire the creativity that drives innovation and team success.