How To Create Psychological Safety At Work — Michael Mauro
In a time of constant flux, it seems like there’s a new threat to our collective consciousness around every corner.
The pandemic alone triggered a staggering 25% increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide.
In this article, we look at how you can create psychological safety in the workplace and why leaders, of all walks of life, need to take it more seriously.
What Is Psychological Safety at Work?
Psychological safety is the shared belief that you won’t be chastised for sharing or speaking up. In short — the absence of interpersonal fear.
In the workplace, this simply means your employees feel comfortable voicing concerns and sharing ideas.
The term was popularised by Amy Edmondson, Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School, in a 1999 journal Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Her exact definition of psychological safety is “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”
“What’s interpersonal risk-taking?” you might ask. It is essentially the process of confronting differences with others in positive ways that encourage learning and change.
Why Is Psychological Safety at Work Important?
The importance of psychological safety in the workplace cannot be understated. When your teams feel safe, the benefits your organisation can experience are:
- Enhanced employee engagement
- Increased confidence, creativity, trust, and productivity
- A greater sense of collaboration
- Higher employee retention and job satisfaction
- Paving the way to improved inclusion and diversity
- Improved company reputation
- Better health and safety, and security
“We learned that there are five key dynamics that set successful teams apart from other teams at Google. Psychological safety was far and away the most important.”
– Julia Rozovsky (People Analytics Manager at Google)
8 Ways to Create Psychological Safety at Work
There are many ways to promote psychological safety at work. Let’s go through some of the must-haves for any organisation.
1. Make Psychological Safety an Explicit Priority
You would be surprised to find how little people know about this subject. So, it’s down to you to be completely transparent about what you’re trying to encourage. Put it in your company handbooks, hold company-wide meetings — do whatever you can to get the word out that you’re embracing psychological safety, and that you want everyone else to do the same.
2. Encourage Openness about Mental Health
This one’s tricky, as most people are understandably uncomfortable talking about mental health — especially in the workplace. Whether it’s a fear of being treated differently or just a lack of understanding of the topic, there are many reasons why people might find it difficult to open up about what they’re going through.
This is why we need to further our efforts to destigmatise mental health so that people can speak more openly about it and feel more motivated to seek professional help.
We’ve still got a long road ahead of us on that front.
3. Educate Your Employees and Yourself
To achieve a keener sense of what’s going on around you and, just as important, within you, you need to educate your teams on mental health and understanding their own inner workings. As the Ancient Greeks once said, “know thyself”.
By improving the behavioural-health literacy of your entire organisation, you can help build more empathetic employees. This will help them tap into the emotions of others and better understand their own.
Leaders who have little understanding of their own emotions and fears will be hopeless in trying to help others do the same. Which leads me to my next point…
4. Lead the Way
As with most things, change needs to start from the top. Your employees won’t feel comfortable sharing if they see upper management refusing to do so.
This is exactly why leaders need to initiate. It could be something as simple as “this deadline is making me really anxious” or “I’m feeling really down today.”
How far you take this is up to you. You don’t have to be open about strictly private matters and personal issues, just be open about your emotions. Remember to exhibit vulnerability and lower your guard when talking about your thoughts and fears.
This type of thinking is a key component of being a transformational leader.
5. Be Open to Feedback
One of the main benefits of psychological safety is that your team will be more open to giving honest and constructive feedback.
This will be next to impossible if you, as a leader, are unable to be challenged on your perspective and push back on every comment you receive. So, invite your team to give you feedback, and I mean really push them to step up and speak their mind.
This might be uncomfortable at first, and you might need to find different ways of getting this information from your employees. For example, an employee might not feel comfortable giving feedback in front of their colleagues, so you could just as easily sit down with them separately and go through their thoughts privately.
Just remember to embrace conflict productively, and with a positive outlook. Getting this right will lead to better decisions and greater accountability.
6. Offer Mental Health Support
This one’s pretty simple — establish workplace programmes that promote mental health and prevent substance-use disorders.
HubSpot, a SaaS company, are a great example of a company that take psychological safety seriously. In fact, their entire culture is built around it, and they even include mental healthcare in their employee value propositions.
7. Embrace Productive Conflict
People will disagree. It can’t be helped. But what can be helped is how that conflict is executed. This is the driving philosophy behind interpersonal risk-taking.
It’s down to you to establish norms for how conflict, and even failure is handled.
8. Support and Represent Your Team
As leaders, you need to champion your team at every opportunity. Show that you’re there to support them not just professionally, but personally too. Share their efforts with senior leadership, give credit where it’s due, take time to talk about things outside of work — just do whatever you can to show you’re fighting for them in their corner.
Drop me a line and let’s discuss how we can start developing your leaders to clear blocks to innovation, collaboration, and interpersonal risk-taking — firstname.lastname@example.org