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March 03, 2022

Boost Psychological Safety at Work

What is Psychological Safety?

Chances are good that you’ve heard someone at work or in a webinar use the term “psychological safety” lately. Although it’s been a topic of exploration in the world of psychology for decades, business leaders have only more recently become interested in how to boost psychological safety at work. This is because today’s organizations are facing new challenges and increased complexity, which demand more collaborative and innovative problem-solving. And it turns out that group safety is a crucial prerequisite for fostering team connection and creativity.

So what exactly does it mean?

“Psychological safety” refers to a shared sense by team members that they can be authentic, openly voice opinions, and take risks without fear of rejection or retribution.

So, what does having more psychological safety do for your team? And what are the drawbacks of not having it?

Benefits of having psychological safety:

  • A more positive work culture
  • Stronger employee retention
  • More and better ideas
  • Increased innovation
  • Better decision making
  • Boosted employee motivation
  • Increased ownership by employees
  • Stronger team cohesion
  • Quicker recovery from mistakes

Drawbacks of not having psychological safety:

  • Less innovation
  • Lower productivity
  • Employee turnover
  • Stagnation of growth
  • Disconnected and siloed team
  • Fewer ideas expressed and considered
  • Ill-informed decision making

How can leaders boost psychological safety at work?

Choose company values that support it: A good way to communicate that something matters to your company is to incorporate it into your stated values. Consider choosing values that help foster psychologically safety, like respect, compassion, equality, and authenticity. Of course, it’s not enough to simply state your values. To make sure they’re lived-out daily, you’ll need to regularly emphasize their importance and incorporate them into how employee performance is assessed.

Promote and model non-judgment: When you ask employees what would help them feel safer to speak up and brainstorm ideas, most will tell you that “a non-judgmental environment” is key. That’s because many of us have a fear of saying something “wrong” or “stupid” in front of others and being humiliated for it. As a leader, you help create safety by reminding people of the importance of remaining non-judgmental in group conversations, and by modeling it in your own behavior. Keep in mind that there’s a difference between being judgmental and sharing opposing views. Team members need to be able to disagree or share differing viewpoints as long as it’s done with respect.

Foster personal connections among the team: Create opportunities for team members to connect and learn about each other on a personal basis. Take time at the beginning of business meetings for chitchat and personal sharing. Encourage team members to sync-up for 1-on-1 check-ins. Schedule devoted time for team building activities and social events. All this connecting will build stronger rapport and trust between employees. This will naturally increase the amount of comfort and safety felt within the team.

Honor confidentiality and use discretion: It’ll hurt team safety if you don’t honor confidentiality or use discretion when communicating about sensitive subjects. If you betray your employees’ trust, they’ll put up a wall and stop sharing their authentic thoughts and feelings. On the flip side, if you show that you’re trustworthy, others will feel safe to express more than just surface-level information. For example, let’s say you ask your team to share their real thoughts and frustrations about the new sales software. They have to know you’re not gonna turn around and tell everything they said to the Director of Technology. Instead, they need to feel safe that you’ll honor confidentiality and discretion while coaching them on the most effective way to communicate their grievances.

Ask for feedback and encourage questions: Your team will feel safer expressing their thoughts and ideas if they see that you’re open and interested in hearing them. How do you demonstrate this openness? Regularly ask for feedback and solicit questions about projects, goals, and decisions. In addition, provide team members multiple ways to respond. Not everyone will feel comfortable sharing feedback or asking a question in a group setting. Give employees the chance to express themselves 1-on-1 or even through digital means.

Allow employees ways to express their unique style: For a moment, picture the stereotypical office environment at a traditional corporation (think Dunder Mifflin!) — Cold. Bland. Standardized. Impersonal. Everyone dressed in similar formal attire. Now, contrast that with some of today’s most dynamic and innovative companies. The latter tend to foster cultures in which employees feel comfortable showing up as their authentic selves and expressing their unique style. This could happen through how they’re allowed to dress or whether they can add personality to their workstation.

Encourage risk-taking: If employees know that their leaders expect them to take risks for the sake of growth and innovation, they’ll feel more safe to experiment with new ideas without the fear of retribution. Help your team understand which types of risks (and potential mistakes) are ok to take-on, and which should be approached with greater caution.

Respond to employee mistakes with dialogue and coaching: When a team member inevitably makes a mistake, everyone will be watching to see how you respond as the leader. Your response is critically important – it can either reinforce or hurt the perceived safety within the team. If you respond to mistakes with anger, judgment, and/or harsh punishment, all the safety that’s been built can be completely decimated. Conversely, if you respond with dialogue, fairness, accountability, and coaching, it can support feelings of trust and safety.

Be transparent with your team about the big picture: No one likes to feel out of the loop or that something’s being hidden from them. If your employees and colleagues feel this way, it’s probably increasing anxiety and decreasing safety. Sure, I understand that leaders shouldn’t disclose everything, but whenever you can be more transparent about the higher-level decisions, plans, and goals of the company, the more it’ll foster safety by lessening uncertainty.

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