These days, more and more people are talking about psychological safety at work. A psychologically safe work environment is important for the work performance, job satisfaction and mental health of your employees. But what exactly is psychological safety? How can you identify psychological safety (or a lack of it) at work? And what can you, as a manager, do to create a psychologically safe work environment?
In this article, we’ll discuss what psychological safety is, why it’s important and what you, as a manager, can do to create a psychologically safe work environment.
What is psychological safety?
In 1999, Harvard professor Amy Edmondson coined the term “psychological safety”. Edmondson describes psychological safety as “trusting that it’s safe to take interpersonal risks” – in other words, that it’ll be appreciated when you come forward with ideas, questions, concerns and mistakes.
On the other hand, psychological safety also means the absence of interpersonal anxiety: employees feel free to speak out without fear of being judged.
In essence, creating psychological safety is about developing an environment where everybody feels like they can be themselves. But why is this so important?
The importance of psychological safety at work
A psychologically safe work environment is important for both employees and the organisation. When your employees feel seen and heard, they perform better, experience more job satisfaction and enjoyment, and have improved mental health.
As Google suggests, that’s also important for the organisation. Research by Google into the secrets of successful teams found that psychological safety plays an important role in success: within the most successful teams, people listen to each other, team members feel free to give their opinions, and they all, roughly, have an equal say. These are all signs of psychological safety.
Creating a psychologically safe work environment can also help with employee retention. When employees don’t feel safe at work, they experience more stress and are at greater risk of burnout. In addition, there’s more chance that employees will leave the organisation.
You might also be interested in: The 8 Best Retention Strategies for 2023
The advantages of psychological safety
- Fewer people calling in sick with stress and burnout
- Improved mental health
- High performance and productivity
- Job satisfaction and enjoyment
Creating a psychologically safe work environment is important for the work performance, job satisfaction and mental health of your employees. But how can you tell whether your organisation is psychologically safe or not?
How to identify workplace trust (or a lack of it)
The most important first step in creating psychological safety is knowing how to identify psychological safety (or a lack of it). Psychological safety is about the subtle interactions between people, explains Joriene Beks – expert and trainer in the area of psychological safety – during a podcast interview. Do people feel seen and heard? You play an important role in this as a manager.
A psychologically unsafe work culture is one where employees don’t feel like they can:
- share ideas, questions and concerns
- express criticism/give feedback
- take risks
- be themselves
When employees don’t feel engaged or they have a sense that they aren’t giving valuable contributions, these might also be signs that an environment is psychologically unsafe.
Particularly when a lot is changing or things aren’t going so well at a company, there’s an increased risk of the environment becoming psychologically unsafe. At moments like this, managers and supervisors often try to get the work side of things under control, but by doing this they – consciously or unconsciously – create an environment where there isn’t much trust. We’re seeing this often, now that more people are working hybrid or remotely.
A lack of trust is a key sign that an environment might be psychologically unsafe. The same is true for a lack of confidentiality, caused for example by personal matters from conversations being discussed with other people. This doesn’t just apply to private conversations, but also to anything that employees share with you as a manager.
Having read these signs, do you think your organisation might have a psychologically unsafe working environment? Don’t worry. The most important thing is that you’re now aware of it. Below we’ll share a few tips that will help you to develop psychological safety.
How to create a psychologically safe work environment
- Take responsibility
As a leader, you play an important role in creating psychological safety at work. That’s why it’s important that you’re aware of how you contribute to creating psychological safety and that you take responsibility for how you show up and how you communicate with other people.
Taking responsibility requires courage because it involves taking a critical look at yourself. A tip that might help you here is to take some time for self-reflection. Journal at the end of the day or, for example, work with a coach who can point out your blind spots.
“It’s up to the leaders of an organisation to create a safe culture.”
- Don’t be afraid to take a critical look at yourself
Maybe as a manager you think that employees can always come to you with anything. But do employees actually feel comfortable doing this? Do they know that they can voice their ideas, questions and concerns with you, without being afraid that it might harm their career or self-image? For example, can an employee with doubts about their role discuss this openly with you, without having to worry that you won’t renew their contract?
Because here it’s very important that you set aside your own preconceptions for a moment. You might very well think that people feel that they can come to you with anything, but whether or not that is actually the case is something you’re only going to figure out by speaking to your employees. As psychologist Paul explains: “Safety is a subjective experience. You might feel like something is safe, but somebody else could have an entirely different experience.”
- Speak to your employees
What do employees think of the work culture? Speak to them, see what you need to change and discuss how you could do things differently.
Be open to what they have to say. Employees often know what’s going wrong and why, and they often have ideas about how to do things differently.
Just keep in mind that they won’t always feel comfortable giving their opinion in a psychologically unsafe work environment. In cases like this, an anonymous survey might be a safe alternative.
- Listen to other people’s perspectives
When you’re speaking to your employees, make sure that you’re really listening to them. Often we’re mainly listening to respond, which means we listen less actively (because we’re too busy thinking about our reaction). This can lead to misunderstandings because we don’t always get what the other person is saying. By actively listening and asking questions, you’ll understand each other better and it will make your employees feel seen and heard.
- Be open and clear about your boundaries
If you want to create psychological safety, it’s important to be open and to allow yourself to be vulnerable. At the same time, you also need to protect your boundaries. When you share too much as a leader, this can make you feel uncomfortable and unsafe. An important question to ask yourself is why you’re sharing something, suggests Dr Brené Brown. Are you sharing it to build trust and connection and to help advance your relationship or do you want to offload your worries or take out your frustrations on the other person? Obviously, that latter isn’t particularly helpful.
- Raise awareness
As you can see, there are many steps that you can take as a manager to develop psychological safety. But, creating a cultural change is something you ultimately do together. That’s why it’s important to raise awareness amongst your employees so that they also know what psychological safety looks like. (For example, you might want to share this article with them).
By raising awareness within your organisation and talking about it openly, your employees will also find it easier to speak up when things go wrong.
In addition, make sure that employees know who they can speak to. Is there a counsellor or somebody else they can talk to?
- Encourage employees
As well as raising awareness about psychological safety, you can also actively encourage employees to communicate openly. For example, ask them how they prefer to work and how they prefer to communicate and encourage them to be open about this.
Make sure that there is space for everyone to share, and encourage your employees to talk openly and to listen. (For example, this might also mean that people who tend to listen should be encouraged to speak, and people who tend to talk should be encouraged to listen). The most important thing is that everyone feels seen and heard.
- Set an example for other people
As a leader, your job is to set an example and you can inspire other people to make the changes that are needed. Don’t underestimate the impact that you can make.
By now, you’ve probably gathered that developing psychological safety isn’t easy and it requires a lot of commitment. There’s a simple reason for this, explains Amy Edmondson. It’s totally normal for people to keep their ideas to themselves, be hesitant to ask questions and to prefer not to speak up in the event that they disagree with their manager. That’s why it’s so important for you as a manager to consciously create an environment where this is encouraged.