The Importance of Psychological Safety in the Workplace

2nd January 2020

We are living in a knowledge economy where ideas and innovation are currency, and act as a key differentiator in the marketplace. It’s the ideas and knowledge that individuals bring to an organisation that really add value making it more competitive.

This value can translate into huge benefits for the company as its workforce is a rich, untapped source of product innovation, new business strategies and ways to improve day-to-day operations.

Engaged people are also an organisation’s best line of defence. They can provide early alerts to possible market threats and act as sentinels on the ground that can highlight problems which might be invisible to management.

What is psychological safety?

Harvard Business School professor Dr Amy Edmonson describes it as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes”.

In other words, a psychologically safe environment is a place where individuals feel empowered to share information and be vulnerable. The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) describes it as a key characteristic of a healthy company culture.

Following a four-year study into what makes a successful team, Google found Psychological Safety to be a key differentiator when it comes to making a team work. Its study revealed that the company’s best-performing teams all had strong Psychological Safety in common.

MIT professors Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis say a sense of safety is a vital component for fostering learning and enabling people to change their behaviour in response to shifting organisational challenges.

The world of work is changing

Over the past 20 years the workplace has transformed, becoming an increasingly digital and collaborative environment where the majority of workers are team-based.

A study found that more than three-quarters of a person’s working day is spent communicating with colleagues and that the quality of these interactions can have a direct positive or negative impact on an organisation’s success and work culture.

To ensure it’s a positive one, enterprises must pay close attention to the Psychological Safety in the workplace.

If an organisation neglects the interpersonal dynamics of its people, it ignores a core part of its operation. Research by PwC found that good Psychological Safety helps encourage flexible thinking and intrapreneurship among workforces.

A framework developed by the National Workforce Skills Development Unit for the NHS, identifies Psychological Safety as one of five interconnected pillars for creating a healthy workplace.

People are what make a company, and an effective, cohesive team much better equipped to achieve positive outcomes.

Give your people a voice and the confidence to use it

Companies can only reap these benefits if their people feel safe enough to speak up. Without safety, people will frequently avoid putting themselves out there for fear of embarrassment, harsh judgement from their co-workers or reprisals from management.

By not sharing errors, highlighting poor practices or asking questions, opportunities for small learning are missed because people are so unconsciously focused on maintaining their ‘work face’. In what feels like a threat environment keeping silent presents itself as the safe option.

In the aftermath of the 2008 UK financial crisis, the FCA found that many of the issues that led to the crash were a result of toxic company culture, where people felt they could not speak out about poor conduct due to fear.

Olivia Fahy, Lead Associate at the FCA said had these financial organisations had better Psychological safety, many of those failures could have been lessened. In sectors where mistakes can have devastating consequences such as healthcare services, highlighting small risk or concerns earlier can have a major impact on outcomes.

The work environment is linked to employee wellbeing

Feeling under constant threat can also negatively impact the work environment leading people to feel dissatisfied and experiencing higher levels of stress.

According to the Mental Health Foundation, working conditions and environment can have a huge impact on a person’s mental health, which in turn can have a significant impact on their ability to perform their job well.

There is increasing evidence to show that poor psychosocial working conditions or ‘job stressors’ such as low job control, bullying and low social support can lead to mental health problems, such as burnout, depression, anxiety and distress.

It is estimated that 12.7% of all sickness absence days in the UK can be attributed to mental health. In the NHS, the cost of employee mental ill health accounts for an average of £1,794 to £2,174 per person, according to research by Deloitte.

So, by nurturing a better work culture through the promotion of Psychological Safety, a company can expect to benefit from happier and healthier workers.

Let your people feel safe being vulnerable

By enabling regular check-ins with their teams, management can better pinpoint troubles and identify opportunities for improvement. This data from their people can help them to create a plan of action moving forward and to continuously address areas of concern as they arise.

The risks associated with being vulnerable can be tangible as well as mental. For example, a team member may think that admitting an error or asking for help will make them look incompetent, which could damage their career prospects and status within the team.

Removing this anxiety unburdens people who are then better able to focus on collective goals and problem-solving rather than on self-protection.

How can a company improve Psychological Safety?

It starts with leadership, management has to genuinely buy into the concept and lead from the front.

Adopting an inclusive and participatory management style can help workforces to feel engaged and valued. Work should be framed as a learning problem and not an execution problem.

When people raise something, it should be addressed and not dismissed out of hand. As well as cultivating a speak out culture, leadership must also actively support a listening culture.

Managing Director of Women on Boards UK, Fiona Hathorn, asserts that to be a strong leader means creating an environment where employees feel both heard and comfortable in challenging the status quo and therefore leaders must also open themselves up to feedback.

Divergent voices are key to growth and innovation, those willing to put forward new concepts should be encouraged rather than scrutinised.

Leaders must also acknowledge their own fallibility and regularly make invitations to raise and explore areas of concern and challenges.

Most importantly, the company must actively seek their peoples’ input and cultivate a model of curiosity that necessitates the need to speak up.

People should be provided with a way in which they can offer feedback while feeling confident that sharing won’t get them into trouble.

How Trickle can help

Trickle’s People Engagement platform will give your workforce a channel to share their ideas and concerns openly and collaborate with their colleagues to reach the right solutions for everyone.

With Trickle, you can also put Employee Wellbeing front and centre, by offering a way for your people to confide and receive one on one support with more sensitive issues. Contact us for more information.

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