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What Is Psychological Safety at Work?

What Is Psychological Safety at Work?

As research on diversity and inclusivity stacks up, most HR and senior executives agree: Organizations benefit from diversity of thought.

Groups made up of people with different life experiences bring together many valuable perspectives. And diverse groups are better able to recognize problems and offer up creative solutions than groups of people with similar life experiences.

But what if some team members don’t feel comfortable speaking up? What if they’re afraid to share their concerns or resist asking challenging questions? What if they avoid suggesting innovative ideas because they’re worried about rejection?

Unfortunately, many people feel this way. According to a 2017 Gallup survey, 3 out of 10 employees strongly agreed that their opinions don’t count at work.

A lack of psychological safety at work has major business repercussions. First, when people don’t feel comfortable talking about initiatives that aren’t working, the organization isn’t equipped to prevent failure. And when employees aren’t fully committed, the organization has lost an opportunity to leverage the strengths of all its talent.

“People need to feel comfortable speaking up, asking naïve questions, and disagreeing with the way things are in order to create ideas that make a real difference,” says David Altman, our chief operating officer.

“Psychological safety at work doesn’t mean that everybody is nice all the time. It means that you embrace the conflict and you speak up, knowing that your team has your back, and you have their backs.”

According to Dr. Amy Edmondson, author of The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth, people must be allowed to voice half-finished thoughts, ask questions out of left field, and brainstorm out loud in order to create a culture that truly innovates.

Defining Psychological Safety at Work

Psychological safety is the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.

What is psychological safety at work in particular?

It’s a shared belief held by members of a team that others on the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish you for speaking up.

When you have psychological safety in the workplace, people feel comfortable being themselves. They bring their full selves to work and feel okay laying all of themselves on the line,” Altman says.

The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety at Work

When a team or organizational climate is characterized by interpersonal trust and a climate of respect, members feel free to collaborate and they feel safe taking risks, which ultimately enables them to implement rapid innovation.

A psychologically safe workplace begins with a feeling of belonging. Like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — which shows that all humans require their basic needs to be met before they can reach their full potential — employees must feel accepted before they’re able to improve their organizations.

According to Dr. Timothy Clark, author of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation, employees have to progress through the following 4 stages before they feel free to make valuable contributions and challenge the status quo.

  • Stage 1 – Inclusion Safety: Inclusion safety satisfies the basic human need to connect and belong. In this stage, you feel safe to be yourself and are accepted for who you are, including your unique attributes and defining characteristics.
  • Stage 2 – Learner Safety: Learner safety satisfies the need to learn and grow. In this stage, you feel safe to exchange in the learning process, by asking questions, giving and receiving feedback, experimenting, and making mistakes.
  • Stage 3 – Contributor Safety: Contributor safety satisfies the need to make a difference. You feel safe to use your skills and abilities to make a meaningful contribution.
  • Stage 4 – Challenger Safety: Challenger safety satisfies the need to make things better. You feel safe to speak up and challenge the status quo when you think there’s an opportunity to change or improve.

5 Ways Leaders Can Help to Create Psychological Safety at Work

To help employees move through the 4 stages and ultimately land in a place where they feel comfortable with interpersonal risk-taking, leaders should nurture and promote their team’s psychological safety. Here’s how to help create a psychologically safe workplace:

Infographic: 5 Ways Leaders Can Help Create Psychological Safety at Work

1. Make psychological safety an explicit priority.

Talk about the importance of creating psychological safety at work, connecting it to a higher purpose of promoting greater organizational innovation, team engagement, and a sense of inclusion. Model the behaviors you want to see and set the stage by showing empathy in the workplace.

2. Facilitate everyone speaking up.

Show genuine curiosity and honor candor and truth-telling. Be open-minded, compassionate, and empathetic when someone is brave enough to say something challenging the status quo. Organizations with a coaching culture will more likely have team members with the courage to speak the truth.

3. Establish norms for how failure is handled.

Don’t punish experimentation and (reasonable) risk-taking. Encourage learning from failure and disappointment, and openly share your hard-won lessons learned from mistakes. Doing so will help encourage innovation, instead of sabotaging it.

4. Create space for new ideas (even wild ones).

When challenging an idea, provide the challenge in the larger context of support. Consider whether you only want ideas that have been thoroughly tested, or whether you’re willing to accept highly creative, out-of-the-box ideas that are not yet well-formulated. Learn how to embrace new ideas to foster more innovative mindsets on your team.

5. Embrace productive conflict.

Promote dialogue and productive debate, and work to resolve conflicts productively. Leaders can set the stage for incremental change by establishing team expectations for factors that contribute to psychological safety. With your team, discuss the following questions:

    • How will team members communicate their concerns about a process that isn’t working?
    • How can reservations be shared with colleagues in a respectful manner?
    • What are our norms for managing conflicting perspectives?

If all this sounds like a tall order, remember that psychological safety represents an organization’s climate and culture. And when you consider the enormity of changing a culture, it can feel overwhelming.

But “transformation comes in the form of small steps,” Altman notes, and suggests thinking about it in terms of making incremental changes that yield incremental wins.

“Most of us agree we could make a 1% improvement in a goal we have each day,” he says. “Ask colleagues if they’re willing to sign up for 1% each day. By the end of the year, you’re over 30 times better.”

Access Our Webinar!

Watch our webinar, How Leaders and Leadership Collectives Can Increase Psychological Safety at Work, and learn how to promote psychological safety to foster trust, creativity, collaboration, and innovation across your organization.

How Team Members Can Nurture Psychological Safety at Work

While leaders play a role in shaping their team’s culture, it’s up to each team member to contribute to a psychologically safe climate at work, too.

“A culture is simplistically defined by ‘the way we do things around here,’” says Altman. “We all have a role to play in how we do things at work — both on our team and in our organization.”

Team members can take the following steps to promote productive dialog and debate:

  • Ask powerful, open-ended questions, and then listen actively and intently to understand feelings and values, as well as facts.
  • Agree to share failures, recognizing that mistakes are an opportunity to learn and grow.
  • Use candor, whether expressing appreciation or disappointment.
  • Ask for help, and freely give help when asked.
  • Embrace expertise among many, versus a single “hero” mentality.
  • Encourage and express gratitude, which reinforces team members’ sense of self.

Most importantly, positive interactions and conversations between individuals are built on trust. Give your team members the benefit of the doubt when they take a risk, ask for help, or admit a mistake. In turn, trust that they will do the same for you.

Leaders can also invest in strengthening the quality of dialogue across the organization, from the front desk to the corner office. Quite literally, better conversations will lead to a better culture. Improved conversational skills, combined with a psychologically safe environment, will yield colleagues who are more willing to share unspoken reservations and proposed solutions that are stress-tested more rigorously before implementation.

The work environment is safe for interpersonal risk-taking and the organizational culture becomes more robust, dynamic, and innovative.

Take Action on Psychological Safety at Work

Today’s leaders need the ability to address complex challenges in new and innovative ways. Strengthen your organizational culture and help your team establish a climate of trust and psychological safety at work using our research-backed topic modules

Available leadership topics include Collaboration & Teamwork, Communication, Emotional Intelligence & Empathy, Listening to Understand, Psychological Safety & Trust, and more.

What Is Psychological Safety at Work — When Work Is Virtual?

At first, it may seem that it’s harder to promote psychological safety when some employees are working remotely. After all, how do you establish trust when interpersonal conversations have to be scheduled in advance and conducted through a screen?

According to Altman, the work-from-home reality may give team members a unique opportunity to forge connections and increase psychological safety — if they’re paying attention.

“On a virtual call, you have the ability to look intently at people, not just listening to their words, but seeing and feeling their emotions,” says Altman, who contrasts a videoconference call with a regular in-person conversation.

“In many cultures, it can be awkward to stare at someone for 30 seconds or certainly minutes at a time. But on Zoom, no one knows who you’re looking at, and your ability to apply your emotional intelligence can sometimes be enhanced.”

Psychological safety at work requires that team members have the courage to be vulnerable, and virtual work environments also present that opportunity.

“Maybe it’s hard for you to express vulnerability in person, but through a computer, you can type more vulnerable statements in chat and spend a little more time thinking through how you want to convey it and gauging the impact on others through their comments in response,” Altman suggests. Consider exploring how to practice effective communication in a virtual setting.

Remember, the goal is to create a psychologically safe work climate where team members aren’t worried about feeling rejected for speaking up. When that’s the case, not only does interpersonal risk-taking become the norm, but team members are also more adaptable in the face of change. In other words, they understand the challenges and opportunities that exist throughout the organization — and they see their role in making it a better place.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Begin building psychological safety at work with a customized learning journey for your leaders using our research-backed modules. Available leadership topics include Conflict Management, Emotional Intelligence, Listening to Understand, Psychological Safety & Trust, and more.

August 31, 2020
Leading Effectively Staff
About the Author(s)
Leading Effectively Staff
This article was written by our Leading Effectively staff, who analyze our decades of pioneering, expert research and experiences in the field to share content that will help leaders at every level. Subscribe to our emails to get the latest research-based leadership articles and insights sent straight to your inbox.

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