How to Create Psychological Safety at Work
You’re at a team brainstorming meeting when an out-of-the-box idea strikes you. It has the potential to be a game-changing innovation for your team, but it’s also possible it will flop or, worse, be laughed out of the room. Do you speak up?
Or maybe you find you have a very different viewpoint from your manager on how to approach a roadblock in an important project. Are you willing to share your thoughts with the expectation that they will be heard and considered? Or do you keep quiet, knowing that hierarchy will prevent your differing opinion from being welcome?
Your answers to these questions depend on many factors, but a big one is the degree of psychological safety at your workplace. The good news is that the ability to create and maintain psychological safety at work is a trainable skill. It’s also a quality that enables key organizational transformations, like Agile, because it’s a prerequisite for innovation and open communication. Let’s discuss what psychological safety is and how you can build more of it in your workplace.
What is psychological safety?
“Psychological safety” was coined by Harvard researcher Amy Edmondson in a 1999 paper on organizational psychology and team effectiveness. Edmondson defined psychological safety as, “A shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”
Essentially, employees experience psychological safety at work when the workplace feels like a safe container in which they can show up authentically, take calculated risks, try new things (and potentially fail), and speak up without fear of repercussions. This is important for all individuals in the workplace, regardless of their position or level of responsibility. Since Edmondson’s first writing on this topic, more research has indicated that psychological safety in the workplace is essential for a positive corporate culture, employee satisfaction, and ultimately, a successful business.
Why is psychological safety at work important?
Compelling research from Google proves that psychological safety is the most important factor in creating an effective working team.
Google was on a mission to determine which organizational and team factors are most important to create their top-performing team. With the launch of Project Aristotle, Google’s researchers surveyed their executives around the globe and compiled statistically significant data from hundreds of teams, both high performing and low performing. They then used over 35 different statistical models to survey hundreds of team variables and identify the one factor that was most critical to team success. What was it? You guessed it: psychological safety.
Here are a few ways psychological safety contributes to top team performance:
Innovation + risk management
Psychological safety in the workplace encourages employees to take risks, admit mistakes, ask questions, and explore new concepts, all without fear of being embarrassed or punished. When employees feel safe to speak up, they are more likely to come up with innovative solutions or, on the flip side, identify key problems before they become disastrous.
Psychological safety at work also plays a crucial role in fostering trust and collaboration among team members. When employees feel comfortable sharing their perspectives and experiences, it helps to build stronger relationships and a shared sense of purpose. Colleagues in a psychologically safe workplace are more likely to practice humility and curiosity, leading to a deeper sense of respect for diverse viewpoints. This, in turn, can lead to better communication and more effective teamwork.
Stress reduction and wellbeing
Another benefit of psychological safety at work is that it can help to reduce stress and burnout among employees. When individuals feel safe to express themselves authentically in a supportive environment, they are more likely to feel as though they matter and belong. The ups and downs of projects are managed collectively, avoiding the stress that can accompany blaming and scapegoating. Employees are also less likely to harbor resentments towards colleagues if they are able to express differing opinions with acceptance. The combination of an increase in positive emotions and a decrease in negative emotions can lead to a more positive workplace culture and improved employee wellbeing.
Talent acquisition and retention
The trend towards remote and hybrid work, combined with labor market shifts such as The Great Resignation, have made it increasingly difficult to attract and retain the best employees. Highly sought-after workers now have more options and can be more selective about where they want to work. To stay competitive, companies need to invest in creating vibrant and collaborative work environments. To build the innovative and cooperative teams that people want to join, it is crucial to establish psychological safety as a foundational quality. By fostering a culture of psychological safety, organizations can set themselves apart as the preferred employer and attract the top talent in their industry.
How can emotional intelligence training improve psychological safety at work?
Emotional intelligence (EI) refers to a person's ability to identify, understand, and manage their own emotions, as well as recognize and respond appropriately to the emotions of others. It involves a range of skills, such as self-awareness, self-regulation, and empathy. EI can be developed using neuroscience-based techniques such as mindfulness and attention-training.
Training emotional intelligence can help to create more psychologically safe workplaces by:
Emotional intelligence training enables employees to identify when they are experiencing stress or frustration, and use specific techniques to manage these emotions. Although it may seem straightforward, being able to interact with coworkers and tasks with a composed and focused mentality can have a significant impact on reducing conflict and fostering a positive and psychologically safe work environment.
Enhancing communication skills
Successfully navigating complex business problems requires exceptional communication skills. With a foundation of self-awareness and emotional regulation, employees can approach conversations from a calm, empathic place that allows for more productive and collaborative conversations. Clear and kind communication helps enable a cooperative and psychologically safe workplace.
Increasing empathy at work
Conflict is an unavoidable aspect of working on a team, but emotional intelligence training can improve employees' ability to empathize with each other, even in these tough moments. With enhanced EI skills, colleagues can better understand one another's perspectives and viewpoints, leading to a more harmonious work environment. Emotional intelligence training also fosters an attitude of curiosity towards others, resulting in greater diversity and inclusion of perspectives. These factors contribute to a psychologically safe work environment, where employees feel secure and supported.
When employees cultivate the skills to improve resilience, they perceive obstacles as opportunities for personal and professional development. This perspective enables employees to refrain from concealing, minimizing, or attributing blame for the inevitable missteps that arise during complicated, innovative work. Feeling secure in the knowledge that errors will not result in punishment or ridicule is a crucial aspect of creating a psychologically safe work environment.
How can leaders improve the psychological safety of the workplace?
1. Encourage diverse viewpoints: In their book, The Psychological Safety Playbook, authors Dr. Karolin Helbig (an SIY-certified teacher) and Minette Norman encourage leaders to facilitate open communication by asking the question, “What am I missing?” This signals to employees that opposing viewpoints are welcome and expected, allowing people to speak more freely.
2. Admit when you don’t know: Outdated models of leadership conjure the image of an all-knowing executive whose power comes from never showing vulnerability to employees. Instead, Helbig and Norman note, admitting that you don’t yet know the right answer to the problem at hand models a mindset of curiosity and continuous learning. This encourages information sharing, innovative viewpoints, and models for employees that it’s OK to ask for help or try new things.
3. Listen with curiosity and humility: Helbig and Norman explain that truly listening as leaders requires a commitment to curiosity. While it’s tempting to prepare a response while the other person is speaking, the best leaders are fully present and focused on what is being said. Helbig and Norman also point out that it’s easy to conflate understanding with agreeing and agreeing with liking. Instead, successful listeners untangle those three experiences and seek first to fully understand another’s viewpoint, even if they don’t agree with it.
To read more practical tips on how to implement psychological safety at work, we recommend reading The Psychological Safety Playbook.
We can help to increase psychological safety at your workplace.
Looking to improve psychological safety at work but not sure where to start? Check out our Effective Teaming program, which leverages neuroscience-based techniques to build trusting and collaborative teams.