Psychological safety has become a top workplace goal, especially amid the global challenges currently facing employers. But the term is often misunderstood.
A psychologically safe workplace isn’t a one-time achievement. Nor is it easy to build. Rather, it’s an ongoing journey that requires intention and commitment from all levels of your organization. But your efforts can result in a more resilient, innovative workforce bonded by trust and authenticity.
What is psychological safety in the workplace?
Psychologically safe workplaces help employees feel confident:
- Asking questions
- Offering new ideas
- Raising concerns
- Making mistakes
For an employee to feel psychologically safe, they must know they won’t be embarrassed or retaliated against for speaking up or speaking out, according to the Center for Creative Leadership.
Benefits of psychological safety
There is tremendous business value in empowering your employees to be themselves, feel confident in demonstrating their full range of abilities, and engage in respectful, productive disagreements.
Psychologically safe organizations are more likely to:
- Innovate and embrace new ideas
- Recover from setbacks
- Have higher employee engagement and reported feelings of inclusion
- Successfully implement new work arrangements, including remote and hybrid models
Levels of psychological safety
The Center for Creative Leadership shares four levels of psychological safety, with each level building on the last.
- First, you work toward a sense of connection and belonging in your work environment. At this stage, your employees feel like they can be their authentic selves at work.
- Next, you allow employees to grow by learning, questioning and making errors. You encourage professional development and appropriate risk-taking. At this level, consistent two-way feedback helps your supervisors and employees learn from each other.
- The third stage is when your employees connect their work to a larger meaning. They feel like their skill sets are making a difference in your workplace and their communities.
- The highest level is when employees feel empowered to suggest changes and improvements, even in regard to long-standing policies and practices. Ask your leaders to be curious, positive, open to differences of opinion and supportive of temporary setbacks — including their own.
Psychological safety is an ongoing process. Your organization may move up and down these levels. Changes in leadership, evolving workplace culture and priorities, and personal and societal challenges can all impact the psychological safety of your employees.
Seven steps to increase psychological safety
According to the Harvard Business Review, it takes extreme dedication to unlock the highest level of psychological safety. Challenges include:
- Rigid, negative work environments
- Individual resistance to change
- Human nature to avoid disagreements with higher management
But the rewards can make your efforts worth the challenge. Here are seven steps to improve your organization’s psychological safety:
1. Be intentional about your changes. Start at the top, and communicate and model expectations throughout your organization. Leaders must demonstrate empathy and the behaviors they want to see. Ask managers to better understand their teams and what makes them tick. Express appreciation for hard work, collaboration and respectful interactions.
2. Encourage new ideas. Workplaces that belittle employee ideas or silence dissenting opinions won’t achieve psychological safety. Listening is vital to your efforts; you need to grant people time to formulate their thoughts without interruption. One idea is to regularly survey all of your employees for new ideas, and then act on the ones that make business sense. This shows a willingness to listen and encourages more people to come forward with their ideas.
3. Allow people to make mistakes. Egregious acts of irresponsibility and intentional fraud will always be off-limits. But allowing your employees to experiment and learn from their failures can create a stronger environment for innovation. Your leaders can set a good example by sharing stories of mistakes that helped them grow.
4. Practice being vulnerable. It isn’t easy to share our limitations with coworkers, and this practice won’t happen overnight. Start small, perhaps by opening a meeting with a recent challenge and the feelings associated with it. Then ask whether anyone else would like to share difficulties they’ve been experiencing. By being open first, you can help your team move past the initial discomfort. Vulnerability often creates a ripple effect. In time, more of your employees will feel comfortable sharing their stories and struggles.
5. Train supervisors and employees on conflict resolution. A psychologically safe workplace doesn’t mean total harmony. In fact, the Harvard Business Review notes that disagreements and different viewpoints are important for generating new ideas and moving your business ahead. But disagreements become counterproductive without respectful boundaries. It’s important to train supervisors and employees to turn conflicts into helpful dialogues that move your team forward. Practice interpersonal communications in small groups, and then move on to larger issues with bigger teams.
6. Pay attention to individual differences. Employees have different personalities, motivations and career goals. Understanding these differences will help you avoid unintentionally getting in the way of their psychological safety. For example, if a manager regularly praises an employee for putting in long hours to finish a project, it could play into that individual’s anxiety about work-life balance or create unrealistic expectations for other members of the team.
7. Focus on improvements to business performance. Some employees may be resistant to changing their thought and speech patterns. Another strategy is to explain this process as a way to improve business performance through innovation and diversity of thought. This tends to help people speak up, even more so than when the stated goal is feeling safer or improving their listening ability, according to research from Harvard.
As with any change, achieving psychological safety requires intention and long-term commitment. Start small and celebrate improvements. Understanding that psychologically safe workplaces are an ongoing journey can help leaders stay the course through the inevitable ups and downs.
For more ideas on improving psychological safety in your workplace, talk with your benefits adviser. They can help you explore benefits that aid the cause, including leadership training and mental health benefits.
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