Cultivating Psychological Safety as a Manager

27 Feb ‘24
6 min
Work performance
Editorial Board OpenUp
Reviewed by psychologist Kim Schlüter
Psychological Safety at Work
In today’s workplace, the concept of psychological safety has taken centre stage, sparking meaningful conversations across industries. Psychological safety is pivotal for enhancing work performance, boosting job satisfaction, and nurturing your team’s mental well-being. What exactly does psychological safety entail? How can we discern its presence (or absence) within the workplace? 


In this article, we’ll discuss what psychological safety is, why it’s essential, 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 “psychological safety”. Edmondson describes psychological safety as “trusting that it’s safe to take interpersonal risks” – in other words, feeling understood when you come forward with ideas, questions, concerns and mistakes.


On the other hand, psychological safety also means the absence of interpersonal anxiety: colleagues 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 isn’t just a nice to have; it’s a crucial foundation for both teams and the organisation at large. When individuals feel acknowledged and valued, it translates into enhanced performance, greater job satisfaction and enjoyment, and enhanced mental well-being.


Echoing insights from a leading innovator, Google‘s investigative journey into the dynamics of successful teams underscores the vital role of psychological safety. Their findings reveal that the highest-performing teams are characterised by mutual respect, where listening is prioritised, opinions are freely shared, and everyone has an equitable voice. These elements are indicative of a psychologically safe environment.


Creating a psychologically safe work environment can also help with retention. When individuals don’t feel safe at work, they experience more stress and are at greater risk of burnout. In addition, there’s more chance that individuals will leave the organisation.


📖 Want to learn more about retention? Read The 8 Best Retention Strategies for 2023 



The advantages of psychological safety


  • Fewer people calling in sick with stress and burnout
  • Improved mental well-being
  • High performance and productivity
  • Innovation
  • Engagement
  • Job satisfaction and enjoyment
  • Retention


Creating a psychologically safe work environment is vital for the work performance, job satisfaction and mental well-being of your team. 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. Do people feel seen and heard? You play an important role in this as a manager.


A psychologically unsafe work culture is one where individuals and teams don’t feel like they can:

  • share ideas, questions and concerns
  • express criticism/give feedback
  • take risks
  • be themselves


When individuals feel disengaged or doubt the value of their contributions, it often signals a psychologically unsafe environment.

There is an increased risk of psychological unsafety during periods of significant change or challenges within a company, In such times, managers and supervisors, in their efforts to stabilise operations, might inadvertently foster a climate lacking in trust. This trend is increasingly observed in the current landscape of hybrid and remote work settings.


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 your team share with you as a manager. 

If you are concerned that your organisation has a psychologically unsafe working environment, remember, that 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.

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How to create a psychologically safe work environment


1. Take responsibility


As a leader, your role in fostering psychological safety at work is pivotal. Recognising your impact on creating this environment and taking responsibility for your presence and communication style is crucial.

Embracing this responsibility demands courage, as it means critically examining your actions and behaviours. A helpful strategy for self-improvement is dedicating time to self-reflection. Consider journaling at the day’s end or engaging with a coach to identify and address your blind spots.


“It’s up to the leaders of an organisation to create a safe culture.”


2. Take time for self-reflection 


As a manager, you might believe your door is always open for your team to share anything. Yet, the critical question is, do they genuinely feel at ease approaching you? Are they confident in sharing their ideas, questions, and concerns without fear of jeopardising their career or self-image? For instance, are team members able to openly express uncertainties about their role without worrying about contract renewal?

This scenario underscores the importance of temporarily setting aside your assumptions. You may assume a welcoming posture, but understanding how your team feels requires direct conversations with them. As psychologist Paul highlights, “Safety is subjective. What feels safe to you might be perceived differently by someone else.” This perspective urges a proactive approach to validating and fostering a truly open and psychologically safe environment.


3. Speak to your team


To truly understand your work culture from your team’s perspective, engage with them directly. Discover areas that need improvement and collaboratively explore alternative approaches.

Embrace openness to their insights. Teams are frequently well aware of existing issues and possess valuable suggestions for change.

Remember, not all may feel at ease sharing feedback in a psychologically unsafe environment. For such instances, consider conducting an anonymous survey as a secure means to gather honest input.


4. Listen to other people’s perspectives


When engaging with your team members, prioritise active listening. Often, we listen more to respond than to understand, our minds preoccupied with crafting our next reaction. This approach can foster misunderstandings, as we might miss the essence of what’s being communicated. By focusing on truly hearing what your team members express and encouraging questions for clarity, you’ll deepen mutual understanding. Such attentive listening make your team members feel genuinely recognised and valued.


5. Be open and clear about your boundaries


Creating psychological safety requires openness and vulnerability, balanced with maintaining personal boundaries. Over-sharing as a leader can lead to discomfort and undermine safety. Dr Brené Brown advises reflecting on the purpose behind sharing: Is it to foster trust and connection, enhance relationships, or merely to offload worries or vent frustrations? The latter can detract from a constructive environment. Prioritise sharing to build a supportive and understanding team dynamic.


6. Raise awareness


Creating a cultural change is something you ultimately do together. That’s why it’s important to raise awareness amongst your team 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 team members will also find it easier to speak up when things go wrong.


In addition, make sure that team members know who they can speak to. 


7. Encourage your team members


As well as raising awareness about psychological safety, you can also actively encourage your team 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. 


Ensure there’s room for everyone’s voice, promoting a culture of open dialogue and attentive listening. This may involve encouraging quieter individuals to contribute their thoughts and urging more vocal members to practice active listening. The paramount goal is to ensure everyone feels acknowledged and valued.


8. 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 normal for people to keep their ideas to themselves, be hesitant to ask questions and prefer not to speak up if 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.



Remember, building psychological safety does not happen overnight. It’s a process that requires patience, understanding, and ongoing effort, not just from managers, but from the organisation as a whole. Be patient with yourself, and don’t hesitate to reach out for support and guidance when you need it.


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