How to ensure psychological safety at work
Have you ever observed a colleague who is usually silent during meetings but has the brightest ideas when they’re not in the spotlight? Have you ever thought yourself as incompetent because you asked your manager the same question in five different ways? If the answer in both cases is “yes”, then you don't score high in psychological safety at work – and this can severely impact both employee morale and performance down the road.
With talks around diversity and inclusion gaining solid ground in the business world, psychological safety has become part of the lexicon for company and thought leaders who try to define what a healthy workplace is. But is psychological safety at work solely a parameter for boosting inclusivity and employee wellbeing, and updating your people operations strategy? Actually, it’s much more than that.
Let’s go back to 2012, when Google initiated the Aristotle project, an internal research to explore what makes an effective team. The emphasis of the research was not on professional skills and team members’ expertise, but rather on group dynamics, personality traits and emotional intelligence. And guess what – psychological safety was one of the top results.
What is psychological safety in work teams?
Before diving into the pure assets of psychological safety at work let’s have a look at its definition. According to Harvard professor Amy Edmondson, psychological safety creates a team climate where people are encouraged to take risks fearlessly and nurtures mutual trust, support and respect. As a result, employees don’t feel the need to censor themselves before talking and are not afraid to speak up.
In this video, Amy Edmondson – Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School – describes Google’s findings on team effectiveness and the crucial role of psychological safety:
Why is psychological safety important in the workplace?
Apart from improving team effectiveness as shown in Google’s project, here are some other benefits of psychological safety at work:
1. It increases employee retention: According to the 2019 People Management Report, employees who felt psychologically safe in their team were less likely to quit their jobs. After all, why leave an organization or a team where you feel accountable, valued and safe even when you make mistakes? This is excellent news, as employee turnover is a huge pain point for businesses, with high costs both in cash flow and productivity, as well as in replacing someone who leaves.
2. It fosters inclusion and empathy: A psychologically safe environment acts like a protective shield for diverse workforces – it allows all people to flourish equally no matter what their background, race or color is. There is room for everyone to express their unique ideas. The outcome – constructive feedback replaces judgment and positivity outweighs negativity.
3. It boosts creativity and innovation: Imagine a brainstorming session where people second-guessed every idea before speaking it out. This would destroy the ideation process and hinder innovation.
In brainstorming, there is no such thing as a bad or wrong idea – the point is, everyone feels empowered to bring everything to the table without fear of repercussion. Without opening things up to this kind of risk-taking, teams may hinder creative energy.
4. It nurtures employee wellbeing: When employees regularly censor themselves before talking and are afraid to open up in difficult times, stress levels can hit red. And if they are a part of an extroverted team, this pattern can become even more overwhelming. When psychological safety is reinforced, people can feel more true to themselves, bringing their true selves to work and spend more relaxed and therefore creative days at the office.
5. It improves organizational performance: Research has shown that companies who actively establish psychological safety see increased revenue due to product and customer satisfaction. Employees who feel psychologically safe are the biggest brand ambassadors the company can employ, and this positively impacts customer experience, too.
Knowing all this, fostering psychological safety in your workplace should be your top priority. If you don’t know where to start, we’ve gathered some good practices for you.
Psychological safety at work – tips for leaders
Before you start implementing the tips below, try to understand the current level of psychological safety in your team. Do your employees share their ideas openly during meetings? Do your teammates approach you to talk about difficult topics? Try to gain insight into what goes well and where there is room for improvement, and think of how these tips could help your team feel psychologically safe and ready to open up.
Keep in mind that in order to improve your team’s psychological safety, you should first understand your own flaws and accept that you’re vulnerable – this will be the starting point of your journey.
Tip 1: Listen first, speak second
One of the main tools in effective communication is active listening. This means focusing your full energy on what the other person is telling you. To actively listen to your colleagues, shift all your attention to them and allow them the space to unfold their thinking.
Don’t rush to answer if something feels complex and overwhelming – take your time. This way you show them that what they said matters and deserves your full attention. Follow the same pattern during free-riding dialogues – listen, think, and then respond.
Tip 2: Seek for feedback
Use your 1:1 meetings to discuss in depth about how your teammates feel about the way you work and what they would like to improve. They might have input on operational changes that would help the team work more efficiently. Talk to your colleagues and use these personal meetings to understand what type of personality they have and what their needs are.
For instance, you identify a more introverted employee in your team. Don’t put them in the center of attention to “wake them up”. It’s wiser to discuss with them how they would feel more comfortable to contribute to meetings, e.g. note-taking. Try to understand in which area they would flourish based on their unique traits and communication style.
You can also conduct an internal survey to track down those elements and see how safe your employees feel. Include questions such as:
- Do you feel like you can speak up when something is wrong with the team?
- Do you feel like your input is valued equally compared to that of your teammates?
Finally ask employees to make suggestions (e.g. in the form of an open-ended question) on how you could improve your team’s psychological safety to make sure you head in the right direction.
Tip 3: Beware of double bind communication
According to English anthropologist and social scientist Gregory Bateson, double bind communication is when the speaker sends conflicting or inconsistent verbal or non-verbal signals to the listener. In an organization, there is nothing more confusing than receiving conflicting messages, especially from those you report to, such as your manager. That’s why you should be mindful of what you say and promise to employees. If your words and deeds don’t correlate or are inconsistent over time, your team will likely get frustrated and disengaged.
Here is an example: A manager encourages their employees to reach out to them for questions or for help, but in reality they are hardly ever available and don’t respond regularly to emails and messages. This sends confusing messages and can make employees feel less accountable. When their worries and questions are not addressed, they might even feel responsible for this reaction – or actually, the absence of it.
Tip 4: Be available
Continuing on the same mode, if you want your team to feel psychologically safe, make yourself available and make sure your team knows it. This, of course, doesn’t mean that you should interrupt meetings to answer a phone call or feel obliged to have prepared answers for everyone. But it does mean keeping that metaphorical door open to your office.
You also want to schedule regular 1:1 meetings and encourage employees to share their concerns with you. Plus, you can inform them about your exact availability and how they can reach out to you. It could be at certain hours or at a set time each week, via Slack or email – think of what suits you and your team needs best.
Tip 5: Adopt a growth mindset
If employees perceive mistakes as failure, they’re more likely to feel stressed and psychologically unsafe at work. However, if you label mistakes as opportunities for growth – as Bill Gates is reported to have said –, a whole new perspective lies ahead, which is positively challenging.
To nurture that growth mindset, always praise employees for their effort, not just for the results they bring. Setting the right goals will help you, for instance, focus on career development goals and train your employees in new skills. When measuring success solely through numbers, employee wellbeing and psychological safety take a hit.
Tips for sustaining psychological safety in distributed teams
How easy is it to monitor psychological safety in remote teams, especially in those operating in different time zones? Well, the same tips apply here – but virtually. Technology will help you be there for your teams with the use of tools that enable communication. Then you can adapt the practices above to a virtual environment. More specifically:
- Pick the right tools: Apart from an e-conferencing solution such as Zoom or Google Meet, choose tools that enable conversations, comments and note-taking. This way, everyone will have access to the same resources and will be able to contribute their ideas or suggestions for projects.
- Spend equal time with everyone: As mentioned earlier, it’s important to have 1:1 meetings with all teammates to get to know them on a deeper level. When people work from remote workplaces, you cannot stop by someone’s desk to say hello or spot a teammate who is left out.
Isolation is more likely in a remote work environment – to ensure this doesn’t happen, ping your colleagues regularly for a friendly chat and schedule happy hours when everyone can jump in and spend fun time together.
- Get everyone on the same page: Keep big announcements and goal-setting for team meetings and avoid discussing them beforehand individually. Otherwise your teammates might feel threatened and lose trust in your vision and collective goals if they realize that others got word before they did.
If you’re new to the remote-first working setup, this guide can help you get started.
Psychological safety – it’s a learning curve
The road to psychological safety is not a straight one; a leader has to deal with their own flaws and emotions to empathize with others and that’s not an easy task. But as you can see it’s worth the struggle. Open up, allow yourself to be vulnerable and accept that you don’t always have to say the last word – this will empower your teammates, make them feel safer and happier, and more productive over time.