How to create psychologically safe places where people can flourish
Positive work culture within a digital world can be hard to create, but what if a digital solution was actually the answer?
When people flourish, workplaces flourish. This is a core principle that underpins workplace wellbeing, and why so many businesses are prioritising and investing in the mental health of their teams.
Psychological safety is about enabling people to contribute freely, and it’s been pinpointed by Google as the number one leading trait of high performing teams.
So what is it exactly, and how can you ensure your workplace is psychologically safe?
What is psychological safety?
Psychological safety is a term coined by Harvard Business School professor Dr. Amy Edmonson. She defines it as "a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes."
In a psychologically safe workplace, people can fully contribute their perspectives without fear of recrimination, ridicule or judgement.
Team members can provide constructive feedback that improves ideas, or own up to errors so they can be managed to minimise the damage.
It enables diverse workplaces to better consider the ideas of staff from different backgrounds, and come up with solutions that have been more thoroughly tested and developed.
How common is psychological safety?
In the Harvard Business Review, Amy Edmonson says psychologically safe work environments are rare, despite being much more relevant for workplaces looking to be agile, inclusive, diverse, and embrace remote working.
She argues that most managers don’t realise how routinely ideas, concerns and questions are hindered in the workplace.
“Creating psychological safety — the confidence that candour and vulnerability are welcome — in a workplace is truly challenging and takes an unusual degree of commitment and skill. The reason for this is simple: It’s natural for people to hold back ideas, be reluctant to ask questions, and shy away from disagreeing with the boss.”
A McKinsey Global Survey further reinforces the scarcity of workplace psychological safety. It found only a handful of business leaders often demonstrate the behaviours that instil psychological safety in their workforce.
Elsewhere, Gallup research found that just 30% of workers in the United States strongly agree that their opinions seem to count at work.
Formal and informal hierarchies create unique workplace dynamics, often in terms of perceived ability or social popularity. Those on the fringe can easily feel repressed or sidelined without adequate attention to including and accepting everyone.
New ways of thinking are exactly what some organisations need to get ahead, but they can also threaten existing power structures or operational models.
Psychologically safe workplaces are not averse to change. Managers embrace ideas because they recognise the potential they can have, the bravery it takes to share them, and the wider implications on the workplace environment.
Conversely, organisational inertia that exists in many organisations leads to ideas being shut down, disabling change and discouraging anyone from being seen to rock the boat.
Benefits of being psychologically safe
In a time where workplaces are putting more emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion, psychological safety is the crucial next step to capture the benefits of having staff with a range of backgrounds and perspectives.
The benefits of being a diverse workplace are well established, but it’s no use having a diverse team if individuals aren’t given the full confidence and opportunity to say what they think.
Gallup found that if workplaces can shift the number of people who strongly agree that their opinions count at work from the current rate of 30% to 60%, it would result in a:
- 27% reduction in staff turnover
- 40% reduction in safety incidents
- 12% increase in productivity
Writing in the Harvard Business Review, strategic advisor Per Hugander describes the significant benefit of successfully building psychological safety and dialogue skills in his past work.
“The results…came in the shape of quicker decisions, better decisions. You slow down to speed up. Strategic problems that had been around for a while, we were able to solve them relatively quickly. Internally and with external stakeholders.”
Creating psychologically safe workplaces
Ultimately, better performance is what all companies strive for. Company cultures and values can overemphasise inclusion, almost to the point of suggesting it’s as important as business results.
But we don’t need to pretend it is. In fact, the opportunity is in the integrity. Performance matters, and should be prioritised honestly.
As stated in the HBR, workplaces that have a focus on performance, rather than interpersonal skills or helping people to feel safe, are better able to become accepting of all staff contributions.
When you’re focused on performance, you’re more willing to test an idea that challenges the mainstream, or explore another way of doing things.
Individuals are more driven to speak freely, because they know the rest of their team is equally as focused on performance as they are. Colleagues will see their efforts for being well intended and give them the appropriate consideration.
Conversely, when the culture is focused on treating people better, individuals don’t feel the same freedom to speak honestly, because they have a greater fear of upsetting someone.
At the same time, leaders are less inclined to buy into the significance of psychological safety because they don’t appreciate its role in driving the company's performance.
McKinsey describes the critical role of leadership development in making a workplace both safe and high performing at the same time.
In fact, many other studies and anecdotal evidence conclude that psychologically safe workplaces perform better.
In becoming safe, leaders at all levels need to demonstrate the specific behaviours that enable employees to thrive.
“By setting the tone for the team climate through their own actions, team leaders have the strongest influence on a team’s psychological safety.” - McKinsey
Leaders need to display the kind of self-awareness, vulnerability and acceptance they expect from their teams, while also facilitating psychologically safe environments.
Psychological safety requires managers and executives to learn the art of facilitating inclusive conversations, particularly rigorous discussions with different viewpoints.
It takes real skill to create an environment where individuals are comfortable to speak their mind, and this is something that managers need to learn how to do.
The ISO standard for managing psychological health and safety at work describes how just being involved in decision making can increase workers’ motivation and commitment to making the workplace a safe place.
“Being encouraged and supported to participate, rather than feeling forced to take part, is more likely to be effective and sustainable.”
It takes real guts for an employee to participate fully, particularly if that means voicing disagreement with a colleague - or worse, their manager.
But disagreement can be constructive, and it’s an important part of testing and improving ideas and strategies. It just needs to be done the right way.
Whenever an individual contributes an idea or thought, there’s an element of vulnerability.
They are putting something out into the world that can be critiqued, which can create a sense of anxiety over how it’ll be received. They may decide it’s not worth speaking up.
Research has shown practising small acts of vulnerability helps to reduce anxiety. Dr. Amy Edmonson - mentioned above - has worked with executives to discover how being open and vulnerable doesn’t harm them, and enables them to take greater risks.
The trick is to start small. A recently appointed manager is unlikely to have the confidence to come straight out and question a CEO, but by allowing them to be vulnerable one bit at a time, and showing them they won’t be hurt by their vulnerability, you give them the confidence to contribute freely.
It takes time and effort to develop a psychologically safe workplace for all, which requires everyone to put in the required effort.
Hybrid or remote teams face the additional challenge of distance, which is where having digital training tools that are universally available are valuable.
Unlike other EAP providers, Clearhead takes a proactive approach that enables leaders and individual employees to build the self-awareness, confidence and resilience that lead to a transformative workplace culture.
With a range of digital tools available around the clock and a digital assistant able to recommend personalised tools based on individual assessments and feedback. Employees and managers learn skills that are vital in creating a psychologically safe team environment.
Clearhead will also provide regular in-depth aggregated and anonymised employee wellbeing data analytics that gives you actionable insights on what are the factors preventing your organisation from creating a psychologically safe workplace.
These reports are also extremely valuable in helping to track the progress you are making.
To find out more, book a free, no obligation Clearhead demo today.