When it comes to creating a safe workplace, employers have a duty of care. But more often than not, this safety stays amongst the physical, mental and wellbeing pillars. While these areas of safety are all vital to creating a positive and harmonious workplace, it seems as though one important factor is missing.
So, what exactly is psychological safety?, I hear you ask…
Psychological safety can be described as the ability to feel confident having difficult conversations in the workplace, without tiptoeing around the truth. It’s also the concept that if an employee were to make a mistake, they would not feel judged, penalised or thought less of in the workplace.
Researchers from Google’s 2015 Project Aristotle found the ability to positively influence group norms can dramatically improve a team’s collective intelligence and productivity. Norms within a team establish how members will interact, communicate and behave. For example, norms which foster psychological safety are:
- Be respectful, and treat one another with dignity
- Be open and honest with how you’re feeling, any challenges you may be facing or ideas you may have
- Listen to understand – acknowledge those who are speaking
- Practice open-mindedness and empathy
- Support each other without judgement or conflict
- Problems should always be discussed and resolved
- It’s okay to make mistakes or not have all the answers
Why should we foster a culture of psychological safety in the workplace?
In 2019, the People Management Report found that managers who foster a psychologically safe work environment face lower rates of employee turnover.
The general consensus?
Providing a level playing ground between staff and management can help retain top performers — and who doesn’t want that?
This also increases employee engagement as people feel motivated to share thoughts, ideas and opinions freely.
Identifying your current level of psychological safety in the workplace
It’s important to identify the current level of psychological safety in your workplace to determine areas for improvement. How? Keep an eye out for signs of judgement, verbal harassment, unsolicited advice, gossiping or interruptions when someone is speaking.
Body language is also extremely important. If team members are disengaged or making disapproving facial expressions when others are speaking, these are signs of low psychological safety.
If you wish to counteract such behaviour, leading psychologist Brené Brown recommends shaping behaviours that are reflective of a diverse and inclusive culture. That way teams will feel confident enough to speak freely, challenge existing assumptions and offer creative ideas.
Be the change you want to see
To build a psychologically safe working environment for your team, you must recognise the role you play in creating it. In times of change and uncertainty, employees need a safe space which provides a sense of comfort and security. Now, more than ever, is the time to reflect on areas in your workplace in need of improvement.
Ready to get to business and create a psychologically safe workplace where your team can thrive? Let’s dive into some changes you can make to build a psychologically safe workplace.
How to create a psychologically safe workplace
1. Change the mindset around failure
It’s more than likely that we’ve all experienced a time when we felt nervous or anxious to speak up in a meeting. Going out on a limb to suggest a new idea, challenge existing assumptions or questioning a senior decision involves a sense of vulnerability. In times like these, its normal to ask yourself:
- “What if they think my idea is ridiculous?”
- “What if my idea fails?”
- “Is my opinion is wrong?”
- “What if I irritate my boss and lose my job?”
In all of these questions there, is one clear message — we are fearful of failing. Humans tend to fear the consequences that may follow if we fail to succeed. If we believe only negativity can come from our mistakes, we create an environment that is psychologically unsafe.
But what if we decided to change our ways of thinking around failure, and it made it into something constructive?
As the old saying goes, ‘It’s not about the destination; it’s about the journey’. In a nutshell, it’s about looking at failure in a new light as something that can be welcomed rather than rejected.
How do you change this mindset?
During planning meetings or daily stand ups, encourage open dialogue around any identifiable gaps in performance. That way everyone can express how they are feeling in regards to each task and reach out if they’re in need of any support. Make sure you inform them that this is a safe space free of judgement.
💡 Top hint: Try sharing your own failures with your team so they can feel a sense of commonality.
2. Show you trust and respect those around you
It’s easy to get the idea of psychologically safety confused with trust. Although the two ideas go hand in hand, they are different in nature. On one hand, trust refers to providing others with the benefit of the doubt when you take a risk. For example, telling someone a secret can be perceived as a risk, however your trust in them means you believe the information will be kept safe.
On the other hand, psychologically safety revolves around other people providing you with the benefit of the doubt when taking a risk and making yourself vulnerable. A perfect case would be stating your opinion in a meeting and relying on those present to not pass judgement.
Trust is something you give; psychological safety is something you receive.
Showing your team that you trust and respect their thoughts, feelings, voice and opinions can help them to feel comfortable in the space they are in. So if you want to foster a psychologically safe workplace for yourself, you must ensure you’re offering others a safe place to share their ideas.
3. Embrace positive conflict
Conflict, much like failure, is typically viewed in a negative light. When we think of conflict, we picture two people in a heated argument with their arms folded, lips pursed, and brows pulled together. When it comes to work, we can’t guarantee we’ll always agree with what our colleagues have to say.
In a psychologically safe workplace, we want to encourage everyone to say what they think and feel. If carried out poorly, workplace conflict can leave people feeling upset, isolated and ostracised by the rest of the team. For this reason alone, it is crucial to open up a safe space for discussion.
First start by establishing clear expectations. Turn the differences of opinion into a healthy debate and try to come to a mutual understanding. Place emphasis on the commonalities between your team, rather than focusing on the differences.
4. Stop the spread of negativity
If you hear of someone in your team speaking negatively about a certain colleague behind their back, immediately pull them up on it. Be clear in how you address gossip, let them know that kind of behaviour is not tolerated and can make people feel unsafe.
When a leader speaks poorly about their staff or allows negativity to flourish, they are setting a poor example for their team. Employees will assume it is okay to ostracise others, or fear that they themselves are the target of gossip. In either case, this creates a psychologically unsafe environment.
5. Involve your team when making decisions
If you want to make your employees feel as though their voices are heard and their feelings are valued, include them in decision making. Reach out and ask for their input and opinions. Creating a level playing field for your team will encourage them to provide suggestions regardless of their role.
Be sure to keep them in the loop every step of the way. Once a decision has been made, explain how their feedback contributed to the outcome. Let them know of any other suggestions that were presented and how they were factored in. Your employees will appreciate any inclusivity and transparency you can provide.
6. Listen to understand
At work, effective communication is key. Although these skills are important, our ability to listen is even more so. For your team to openly discuss their thoughts, ideas and feelings, they need to feel as though they’re heard. When someone is talking, listen to understand rather than respond. Sometimes we have a tendency to focus our energy on forming a response, rather than paying attention to what is actually being said.
The beauty of psychological safety in the workplace is it provides room for innovation and experimentation. When people feel comfortable, respected and acknowledged, they’re more likely to provide meaningful contributions to solve complex problems. Being able to listen attentively to these ideas will allow for psychological safety to flourish.
💡 1:1s are a great way for a manager and direct report to catch up on the week that was. If you’re looking to foster a culture of psychological safety, get in touch with one of our small business specialists. They can walk you through how our 1:1 feature and HRIS can help support your team to create a psychologically safe workplace.
The wrap up
The idea of wearing a mask to hide our true selves at work seems extremely unhealthy. However, there are probably more people than we’d like to admit who experience this on a daily basis. It goes without saying, this toxic work environment can greatly hinder workplace productivity.
If you’re looking to improve your workplace culture, we’ve created a bundle to help you.