Why Psychological Safety Should Be Part of Every Work Culture
17th March 2021
What is psychological safety and why is it important?
Harvard Business School professor Dr Amy Edmonson describes psychological safety 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.
It sets the whole tone for an organisation’s culture, employee experience, style of performance management and how its people interact with each other.
For most of us workplace vulnerability can include situations, such as:
- Speaking up at meetings
- Sharing new ideas or raising concerns
- Disagreeing with senior staff members or coworkers about projects
- Admitting to workplace errors
- Showing emotions
- Asking for help or clarity when needed
So, when people feel they cannot be vulnerable they are highly limited in their ability to participate in the workplace and cannot perform to their full potential.
Organisations with low psychological safety run the risk of hindering innovation and growth as employees will naturally pull back when they don’t feel safe to put their hand up or take risks.
What are the benefits of psychological safety?
Psychological safety has been identified as one of five interconnected pillars for creating a healthy workplace by the National Workforce Skills Development Unit for the NHS.
Research carried out by PwC found that good psychological safety encourages flexible thinking and intrapreneurship among workforces.
MIT professors Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis echo this finding, asserting that it’s a vital component for enabling people to better adapt their behaviour in response to shifting organisational challenges.
After studying 250 attributes and the dynamics of over 180 active teams over a two-year period, Google revealed that its top-performing teams all had strong psychological safety in common.
Organisations that promote psychological safety reap benefits, such as:
- Better employee engagement and wellbeing
- Greater collaboration and knowledge sharing
- Increase in problem solving
- Stronger workplace diversity and inclusion
- Lower employee turnover
- Higher performing teams
- Employees who are more adaptable to change
In what feels like a threat environment, staying silent can present itself as the safest option. It’s this silence that robs organisations of opportunities for small learning and quick wins.
The workplace should feel challenging, not threatening
In the aftermath of the 2008 UK financial crisis, the Financial Conduct Authority (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 that had these financial organisations had better psychological safety, many of those failures could have been lessened.
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 employee burnout, depression, anxiety, presenteeism and distress.
Having good psychological safety at work helps to alleviate these daily burdens, which means people are better able to focus on collective goals and problem-solving rather than on self-protection.
How to increase psychological safety at work
Leaders must take the first step on this journey towards a more psychologically safe environment. Management has to genuinely buy into the concept and lead from the front.
Adopting an inclusive and participatory management style can help foster a sense of safety, belonging and engagement.
Leaders, such as line managers, should invite participation and endorse curiosity among teams. And, when people raise an issue it should be addressed in a timely manner and not dismissed out of hand.
If appropriate and possible managers should try to act on employee feedback and make changes where possible.
When managers are responsive and take meaningful action, it shows employees that their voice not only matters but also has efficacy.
Organisations should provide employees with a way in which they can safely and openly offer feedback while feeling confident that sharing won’t get them into trouble.
Taking this more proactive approach demonstrates that management is actively concerned and committed to understanding and improving their people’s work life.
Welcome all feedback with open arms
Leaders need to be open to both positive and negative feedback and willing to hear out those wanting to challenge the status quo. Divergent voices are key to growth and innovation, those willing to put forward new concepts should be encouraged rather than scrutinised.
If ideas, suggestions or concerns are shut down immediately or met with hostility, people will not want to engage, collaborate or share their true sentiment.
Managers can promote workplace openness by actively soliciting the input of their people on a regular and ongoing basis.
When listening, engagement, and collaboration become a daily habit within an organisation people will feel less anxiety about asking for support, flagging concerns or sharing their true feelings.
Create a no blame culture
When an organisation has a blame culture, employees will not be able to feel safe or secure in their role.
People who are living in fear of making the wrong decision or being shamed when a project fails can become indecisive, unwilling to admit to errors, adverse to collaboration, unwell from prolonged anxiety and stress, and generally feel miserable in their job.
In high-risk industries such as healthcare, aviation or the military being able to admit to or report failures is essential for both safety and performance.
Organisations should regularly encourage people to speak up when something goes wrong and frame mistakes as opportunities to learn and improve.
If someone comes forward they should not be vilified or held up as an example of “how not to do things”.
How leaders respond to these disclosures will have a long lasting impact on the organisation’s level of psychological safety and employee trust.
To help encourage a sense of safety and foster a speak up culture, organisations should provide their people with a platform where they can confide, ask questions or seek guidance from their managers at any time.
Show employees you value them as individuals
An effective way to build psychological safety is to show your people that they matter to you and the organisation. It’s important they know that you genuinely see and value their efforts.
Taking this approach will help give employees a greater sense of belonging, job satisfaction and security.
Giving meaningful employee appreciation means going beyond just praising their wins and achievements, it means taking a more encompassing approach and showing your people that you really recognise and care for them as a person.
Here are some practical ways to show more thoughtful and authentic appreciation:
- Use a mix of individual and group settings to thank those that have done something great.
- Don’t recognise employees for only their big contributions, sometimes the small things can have a greater impact.
- Thank people in the moment. This will help to boost morale and continued performance.
- Ask open-ended questions to give employees an opportunity to participate.
- Practice active listening and respond in a timely manner so your employees feel heard.
Employees are more likely to engage and share their input if they feel that what they have to say matters to the organisation.
People will quickly become demotivated and feel that their job is a thankless one if their hard work is not unappreciated, which can lead to a build up of employee resentment towards management.
If left unaddressed these negative feelings can demoralise a workforce, damage the organisation’s public reputation and limit its ability to attract new talent.
Create a space for people to speak up
Trust and communication are the foundation of good psychological safety. Without regular transparent communication it will be almost impossible to build trust across the organisation.
A lack of trust in leadership is a leading cause of employee disengagement and dissatisfaction.
The quality, frequency and method of how you choose to communicate with your people will be a deciding factor in the tone and openness of your work culture, particularly during a period of crisis or uncertainty.
When communication comes from the top down and is disproportionately one-sided it can come across as draconian, limited and leave employees feeling disengaged.
To counteract this, organisations should facilitate the upward flow of communication from the ground level up and allow employees to reach out at any time.
With the right platform employees do not have to wait for a one-to-one opportunity, the quarterly survey, or the “right moment” to raise concerns or share ideas.
Similarly, managers can reach out in real-time to see how people are doing or feeling about any aspect of the organisation.
With timely information, organisations can implement early-on evidence-based interventions that will have the greatest impact and address the issues that matter the most to employees.
How Trickle can help
Trickle has been specifically designed to improve employee engagement and wellbeing by promoting greater organisational psychological safety at all levels.
The open and transparent nature of Trickle enables managers to collaborate with their colleagues to reach the right solutions for everyone.
Trickle gives your people a voice and a safe space to use it to express their true sentiment, ask for support or seek guidance.
Trickle’s MoodSense feature lets your people share what’s truly on their mind without fear of repercussions, which ensures you get the most accurate and dynamic feedback on the psychological safety of your workforce.
With optional anonymity everyone within the organisation can feel able to openly speak up or ask for support and guidance when they need it.
Trickle provides organisations with honest, unbiased and timely feedback which helps leaders to initiate evidence-based interventions and focus attention where it is most needed.
Find out more about how Trickle can help your organisation improve workplace psychological safety and make things better for everyone.
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By giving your people a place to voice their suggestions & concerns when they need to, you’ll inspire a happier, more productive and loyal workforce.