How to build psychological safety at work

How to create psychological safety at work

Have you ever been in a meeting that lacked open feedback, where nobody seemed to question or challenge each others’ decisions? Have you witnessed meetings that were dominated by certain people or personality types and others in the room were quiet? Or observed people who seem afraid or reluctant to voice their opinions and ideas, so you held your tongue also? Maybe you simply don’t feel included or confident enough to speak up in group settings due to anxiety or fear of embarrassment?

These kinds of observations and behaviours are likely the consequence of a team lacking psychological safety and unfortunately, research shows this is to the great detriment of collaboration, innovation and success in modern workplaces.

If you are the leader of a team, understanding psychological safety and your role in driving it could be the difference between success and failure.

Wondering how to build psychological safety at work? Don’t worry, there are many actions you can take to create psychological safety within your team over time. First, let’s get a better understanding of exactly what psychological safety in the workplace means.

What is psychological safety?

Amy Edmondson, the Harvard Business School professor who coined the term, defines psychological safety as a “shared belief held by members of a team that the team environment is safe for interpersonal risk-taking,” and “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.”

Put simply, psychological safety is a team climate that allows individuals to feel free to speak up and share their ideas without being shamed or fear punishment for making mistakes.

Why does psychological safety matter?

Experts and research suggest there are many benefits of psychological safety.

Studies have shown that psychological safety has a huge impact on a team’s performance. Google’s two-year investigation Project Aristotle looked into what set Google’s high-performing teams apart from the rest and named psychological safety as the number one most important dynamic in creating a successful team.

Amy Edmondson and Google’s research demonstrates that teams who made more mistakes were more successful than teams that didn’t make mistakes. Suggesting creating team environments where people feel comfortable taking risks, are confident bouncing ideas off one another, voicing their opinions and admitting to mistakes without fear of judgement or rejection is key to fostering innovation at work.

Amy’s research demonstrated that teams with high psychological safety were also considered high performing on all team performance metrics but they also reported more mistakes. When she dug into the research they discovered that they didn’t make more mistakes, they simply reported more mistakes because it was safe to do so. In low psychologically safe environments mistakes get covered up, ideas never shared and constructive feedback not directed at the person who needs to hear it. This is a cost that is hard to measure.

Research has also shown a link between psychological safety and staff turnover. A 2019 People Management Report by Predictive Index surveyed 1038 employees from 13 industries about their managers. They found that people who felt psychologically safe were less likely to quit their job. So managers who create psychologically safe work environments are less likely to experience employee turnover in their teams.

Psychological safety in the workplace is of great importance because it enhances employee engagement, fosters inclusivity, inspires creativity and innovation, and improves wellbeing, among other things.

Now that we’ve established that feeling psychologically safe at work is connected to high-performance, innovation, staff retention, creativity and more, what are the best ways leaders can build psychological safety within their teams to start reaping these many benefits?

What can leaders do to build psychological safety?

Leaders need to step up, set the tone and lead by example for team members to feel psychologically safe. There are many ways in which leaders can build psychological safety into their team culture, but here are my top five recommendations.

Embrace humble curiosity

If you’re a leader who is perceived as having all the answers and always being right, you’re not creating an environment conducive to people feeling confident to speak up, challenge viewpoints and share their ideas. So it’s important as a leader to humbly acknowledge you don’t have all the answers, to name your mistakes, lean into asking lots of questions and show that you’re curious, always wanting to grow and learn from your team.

For example, one of our leaders at Inkling sets up weekly retrospective meetings with her team to discuss what they think is working well, what isn’t working and what they’d like to change. At this meeting, the leader must own up to their own mistakes from the previous seven days to set the tone and pave the way for people to share their mistakes and be vulnerable too. This is a fantastic way to get people talking, to collaborate on potential solutions and new ideas, avoid making the same mistakes again, drive innovation and ultimately foster psychological safety.

Seek upward feedback

Regularly seeking feedback from the team is crucial for leaders wanting to build psychological safety. If you never measure psychological safety how will you know whether any of your actions have made any inroads over time? If you sense low levels of psychological safety is an issue you could start with an anonymous staff satisfaction survey and go from there. There are a number of questions to help you assess psychological safety, we like the Fearless Organisation Scan based on Amy Edmondson’s research.

Ask your team as a whole and in private one-on-one meetings to share feedback about inclusivity, trust between colleagues, admitting to mistakes, being themselves, whether they’re comfortable sharing ideas and asking questions.

In hybrid work environments, we remind leaders to not forget to invest time in team members that don’t come into the office and overcome their distance bias (where we value things that are physically closer to us) as their psychological safety and outcomes are just as important and influential as in-office team members.

We recommend pre-warning team members before collecting constructive feedback in-person or via Zoom call and to supply the questions you’ll be asking ahead of time to give them the ability to reflect, consider and prepare responses. Rating scales can be useful tools to bring into these sessions to gauge how different team members feel and where various aspects of psychological safety sit at a given point in time.

Feedback sessions in themselves are a great way to see whether feelings of psychological safety exist within your team. Are people being candid when asked for feedback face to face? In a group feedback session are some people holding back and not voicing their thoughts as much as others?

Another tip for discussions is to be mindful to not jump in with your opinion or ideas first, let others speak and ask questions to seek input from others.

If you’re only receiving positive feedback it could be a sign something is amiss and indicate team members may not feel comfortable being completely honest airing their concerns in a group setting, as there is always room for improvement.

To counteract this, leaders need to acknowledge and praise team members who voice concerns, talk about their mistakes, ask questions, offer constructive feedback and share new ideas in front of the team. Letting others know it is not only safe but greatly appreciated to express vulnerability in team discussions.

Normalise fear

There is often the misperception that psychological safety means the complete absence of fear or conflict. This is not the case. Business realities still exist (e.g. you could lose your job or the business might restructure) and constructive conversations and honest feedback will mean that people don’t always see eye to eye.

Leaders need to start accepting that a level of fear will always exist in social settings, especially if you have a diverse team which research suggests is more likely that interpersonal fear exists and leaders need to work harder to foster a speak-up culture.

To normalise fear, a leader needs to show their vulnerability. This doesn’t mean you need to share your deepest darkest personal and professional problems but instead talk about where you might be currently experiencing fear professionally or where you have experienced fear as a leader in the past, to start normalising it. Creating a safe space for others to admit they have fear or feel concerned about a certain issue, task or project will help people take action despite their fears, making it safe not to be perfect in your team.

Adopt an empathetic approach

Put yourself in another team member’s shoes and perceive what it is like to be present in the room or meeting. Be really mindful when someone is not speaking up and sharing, don’t call them out in front of the group, that will only increase their anxiety, but think about what is going on for that person.

Think about “how can I adapt and flex my style and approach to interacting with the group that’ll help to draw them out of their shell?”. Ask yourself “How can I have a safe way to have a conversation with that person so I can better understand what is going on?” Through empathy, you can alter your behaviour and proactively take action to build psychological safety.

Many leaders I work with focus on authenticity over empathy. They say “I always show up as myself and treat everyone the same, that is me being authentic and inclusive.” My response is “yes, that’s great you can be yourself, but how do you flex your leadership style to account for your audience to get the best out of them?”—this is the empathy part.
Our communication style doesn’t suit everyones’ needs and as leaders we need to be able to perceive what others need to be their best, change our approach if need be and meet them there. We need to do this, while also not being so flexible we lose our authenticity there is a fine balance here. Simply pausing before you interact and asking yourself “what does this person/group need from me?” and leaning into that, over your instinctual and habitual way of being, will go a long way to your approaching situations in a more empathetic way.

Creating psychological safety in the workplace is not something leaders can do once and set and forget. It’s an ongoing and constantly evolving process that will change as you and your team learn from each other. So remember the above tips to continually work on building or maintaining psychological safety within your team to spark innovation, help retain staff and improve your team’s performance.

For more about the importance of psychological safety at work, you can catch me talking about my experiences and sharing advice for leaders on this Fast Track podcast with Margie Hartley.

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