What Is Psychological Safety at Work?
Why a Psychologically Safe Work Environment Matters & How to Foster It
Research has repeatedly found that organizations benefit from diversity of thought, and groups of people with different life experiences are better able to recognize problems and offer up creative solutions than groups 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 about their workplace. According to a 2017 Gallup poll, 3 out of 10 employees strongly agreed that their opinions don’t count at work. And remote work settings — which are much more common now, given the global COVID pandemic — have worsened the problem, particularly for women. A recent survey from Catalyst found that nearly half of female business leaders face difficulties speaking up in virtual meetings, and 1 in 5 reported feeling overlooked or ignored during video meetings.
The net result? A lack of psychological safety at work, which has real business repercussions.
If you want to learn how to foster an environment of greater psychological safety at work and at home, and you’re ready to take the psychological safety challenge, read on!
First, we’ll start by defining psychological safety at work.
What Is 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 them 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,” notes David Altman, our Chief Research and Innovation Officer.
The Importance of Psychological Safety 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 Altman.
“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.
The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety
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 drive innovation more effectively.
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 contribute fully in ways that 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.
To help employees move through the 4 stages and ultimately land in a place where they feel comfortable with interpersonal risk-taking and speaking up, leaders should nurture and promote their team’s sense of psychological safety in the workplace.
How to Create More Psychological Safety at Work
5 Tips for Leaders
Here’s how to help create a more psychologically safe workplace.
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 using inclusive leadership practices.
2. Facilitate everyone speaking up.
Show genuine curiosity and empathy in the workplace, and honor candor and truth-telling. Be open-minded, compassionate, and willing to listen 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 foster more innovative mindsets on your team.
5. Embrace productive conflict.
Promote dialogue and productive debate, and work to resolve conflicts productively. 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 you lead senior teams, our research on psychological safety recommends these additional actions:
- Focus on team members’ patterns of psychological safety, not just the overall level. Do some members experience significantly more or less psychological safety than others, or is the level fairly even across the team?
- Advocate for consistent psychological safety not just as a “nice to have” — it matters for the bottom line.
- Consider the team’s current beliefs when developing strategies to enhance team psychological safety, because one size does not fit all.
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.”
You may want to try taking some small, intentional steps to increase psychological safety at work by taking our 7-day psychological safety challenge!
Access Our Webinar!
Watch our webinar, How Leaders and Leadership Collectives Can Increase Psychological Safety, and learn how to promote psychological safety at work to foster a stronger culture of trust, creativity, collaboration, and innovation across your organization.
Team Members Can Help Create More Psychological Safety at Work, Too
While leaders play a role in shaping their team’s culture, it’s also up to each team member to contribute to a psychologically safe climate at work.
“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 colleagues 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 your 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, because 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.
When the work environment is safe for interpersonal risk-taking, the organizational culture becomes more robust, dynamic, and innovative. Furthermore, people feel more comfortable bringing their whole selves to work.
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-based topic modules.
What Is Psychological Safety at Work — When Work Is Virtual?
At first, it may seem that it’s harder to promote psychological safety when employees are not all co-located and many 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 post-pandemic 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 authentic communication in a virtual setting through the power of listening.
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?
Start creating more psychological safety at work and at home: Take our Psychological Safety Challenge to discover 7 specific practices to try in your conversations next week.
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