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What You Should Know About Psychological Safety in the Workplace
psychological safety

What You Should Know About Psychological Safety in the Workplace

Do you feel safe to be yourself at work?

Many of us spend most of our waking lives at work, meaning that we likely see our colleagues more than we do our own families. Because of this, workplace culture matters a great deal, especially when it comes to our overall mental state. 

The environment in which you spend all of those hours can contribute to feelings of satisfaction and pride or, conversely, stress and depression.  When you work primarily with other people on a team, the way that team functions matters significantly, not just for meeting deadlines and bottom lines but for the general well being of all of those involved. 

Creating what’s called “psychological safety” in the workplace is a modern goal that allows people to flourish without fear of retribution for mistakes or setbacks, promoting vulnerability and fellowship among team members. 

From an organizational behavior perspective, psychological safety is important because it can enhance morale, productivity and team effectiveness. Psychological safety plays a critical role in how employees’ experiences at work are valued. When team members sense that they are safe to make mistakes, engage in risk taking and share ideas freely, they can feel more liberated to show up as their best selves. 

Does your team engage in and try to maintain psychological safety? If you’re new to this term, you may want to consider bringing this concept into your workplace. Here’s what you need to know about the concept, and how it can help you, your colleagues and your employees thrive. 

What does psychological safety mean?

Psychological safety is deeply tied to a feeling of belonging. Instead of pitting people against each other in a competitive environment, where mistakes are pointed out as a way of making others feel better about themselves, psychological safety in the workplace works to create a place where missteps and risk taking are embraced. 

In a psychologically safe office environment, team members agree not to ridicule, punish or shame others for speaking up, whether someone is sharing a wild idea, voicing unpopular opinions or blowing the whistle on a policy that’s unfair. 

Essentially, psychological safety allows for speaking one’s mind and taking risks without fearing retribution. 

Promoting team psychological safety builds stronger teams

This is a relatively new concept, yet it can be game-changing for team performance once implemented. When people work in situations that cause stress—for example, feeling like they can’t speak up for fear of being publicly ridiculed or because they’re surrounded by team members who are jockeying for the boss’s attention—it puts their brains into fight-or-flight mode. 

Not only does this create anxiety and fear within a person, which leads to lower work performance and negative outcomes in general in their life, but it leads to more close-mindedness and less motivation within the team.

On the flip side, psychological safety promotes creativity, resilience, solution-oriented problem solving and even lightheartedness in the workplace, making the office a more mental health-friendly place to be—not to mention more effective and imaginative when it comes to the results of the work itself. 

The 4 stages of psychological safety at work

Fostering psychological safety at work is a process—and one that must be constantly evolving to meet the needs of the team. 

Dr. Timothy Clark, who wrote The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation, outlines four progressive stages for team members to go through before they truly feel free to challenge the status quo and make meaningful contributions without fear of failure or retribution. 

When people feel psychologically safe, they are free to lean into their best, most creative selves. Creating a more fearless organization means that not only will employees be able to forge high quality relationships, they’ll also be able to play more critical roles in the success of the team overall. 

Here’s a brief look at these four stages to foster psychological safety in the workplace.

Stage 1: Inclusion safety

This first stage is the most basic. As humans, we need to feel safe simply being ourselves. In order to connect with others, we must be able to feel a sense of belonging, as opposed to feeling rejected. 

For any workplace, team leaders must foster inclusivity and have a plan in place to combat racism, sexism and other forms of prejudice so that employees can show up as themselves without fearing retribution for who they are. 

One way to measure psychological safety is by how welcoming and diverse your workplace is. You can’t possibly move on to the next step of psychological safety if your office culture is exclusive, clique-y or steeped in bigotry. Team members must hold the shared belief that everyone can be who they are. 

Stage 2: Learner safety

Once people feel accepted for who they are, the next stage of psychological safety is feeling secure in being an active learner. This means asking questions, making mistakes from time to time, trying out new ideas and giving and receiving constructive criticism or feedback. 

In this stage, people feel confident about not having all the answers—and they’re not expected to know everything but rather will continue to learn and grow. Part of learner safety is promoting interpersonal risk taking, which means that differences of opinion and perspective are treated in ways that lead to collective change, rather than reprimanding. 

Stage 3: Contributor safety

This stage of psychological safety deals with feeling comfortable sharing ideas and making a difference. In order for workplace effectiveness, people need to believe that their skills and qualities can make an impact—and they need to feel secure about letting their abilities shine. 

how to create psychological safety
(Cameron Prins / Getty)

This leads to more effective decision making and strategizing as a whole. In this way, a team's psychological safety could be measured by how comfortable people feel fully sharing their expertise and encouraging others to take part in the learning process, and showcase their skills without the culture becoming competitive.  

Stage 4: Challenger safety

Finally, the fourth stage of psychological safety in the workplace is feeling safe when challenging thoughts, ideas and protocol. In this stage, team members know they are psychologically safe if they need to blow the whistle, go against the grain or be the outlier when it comes to popular opinion. 

Knowing that you are in a safe place when you air grievances can have a significant effect on morale and team building. 

How can leaders help create psychological safety at work and strengthen their fellow team members?

Ultimately, it’s up to managers and other leaders to create a psychologically safe workplace. While everyone will need to work together to maintain the team’s goals, this is a top down leadership opportunity that needs to be initiated by someone who’s quote-unquote “in charge.” 

Here are the ways to implement psychologically safety into your office culture.

Talk to your team about psychological safety

The first step toward promoting a team's psychological safety is introducing everyone to the term itself. Work with your team to define psychological safety and provide examples of how it would manifest in your particular work environment. 

When everyone is on the same page about what kind of culture you’re striving for, they can work together to create that setting. You should also discuss how you plan to measure psychological safety within your team so that people know how you’ll define success. Through team learning and building as a unit, you can create a psychologically safe workplace. 

Try to find the win-wins

When you’re discussing outcomes and possibilities as a team, encourage compromise and ways for people to feel like they’ve earned something valuable to them. Ask team members how you can achieve results that are mutually beneficial, rather than encouraging one side of a debate to get the win. This enhances team performance when everyone can come together and be proud of what was accomplished. 

Embrace failure as a learning experience

Instead of reprimanding employees or creating merit systems based on wins, start encouraging ways you can learn from failure without imposing punitive consequences. Allow for interpersonal risks among team members so you can learn from, and rise to, various challenges. 

You can also promote team psychological safety by sharing lessons you’ve learned from mistakes you’ve made, which will help the team put setbacks and disappointments into perspective. At the same time, you want to encourage people to take ownership of mistakes and admit when they’re wrong. Having an environment that welcomes failure helps foster this kind of accountability. 

Encourage big ideas—even crazy ones

Allow for creativity with “think big” brainstorm sessions where any idea is allowed. Then, discuss as a team which ideas have legs based on the criteria you set: Should ideas be tested? Do you want research-based ideas? Or are all ideas equal to be considered, as long as they are well thought out? 

Allowing for different kinds of ideas is a crucial part of decision making so all options are on the table before a choice is ultimately made. Again, taking interpersonal risks as a team, like hearing even seemingly crazy ideas, can bring about radical change. Want more inspiration? Check out these teamwork quotes that can inspire you to new heights of collaboration.

Focus on commonalities

When conflicts or misunderstanding inevitably arise, work on seeing the people around you as humans, not as simply employees. If you happen to butt heads with someone, remember that they have certain beliefs, vulnerabilities and anxieties—just like you do. This person wants to feel respected and valued—just like you do. 

Making a human to human connection helps you keep perspective in a conflict and work toward common goals. Giving people the benefit of the doubt is also important for humanizing people on your team. When someone makes a mistake or asks for help, be gracious about it and trust that they would do the same for you. 

Be curious, not accusatory

Whether your colleague is working remotely or working in the office, it’s possible that someone on your team could start displaying behavior that’s undesired or problematic. If that happens, work with this person to understand what’s really going on. Use non-inflammatory language to state your observations in a neutral way. 

Be up front by saying something like, “I’ve noticed you’ve been absent from meetings recently and missing deadlines,” without placing blame or being punitive. Then, you can be curious about what’s really happening by opening the door for honest conversation. Say something like, “This isn’t typical for you—can we talk about what’s going on and work through this together?” 

Ask for feedback

One of the most important things you can do to create a respectful work environment is to welcome feedback from those who are below you in the company hierarchy. Asking for feedback makes it known that you are willing to accept your own mistakes and work on yourself as a leader. 

One important type of feedback you can ask for is on your delivery of messages and ideas to the team. Ask how you could have presented your message more effectively, how it may have felt for others to hear your message and if your message came across as intended. 

Clear, effective communication is the backbone of any team, particularly one striving for psychological safety in the workplace. Employers should also find ways to measure psychological safety by routine check-ins to make sure the promoted company culture is actually in effect. 

How do new forms of work affect psychological safety?

The ongoing pandemic has upended many work environments, particularly those who work in teams. Work-from-home and hybrid working can make the team aspect of work challenging, especially when people are on different pages about coming into the office again. 

One of the bigger issues that managers in particular have faced is dealing gracefully with the blurred lines between work life and personal life. In pre-pandemic times, these spheres were highly separate—a setup that benefited companies and bottom lines but hindered workers as people felt like they needed to hide or minimize their out-of-office responsibilities. 

Now, managers and employees need to find ways to honestly discuss child care, elder care, health risks and other challenges that might make coming back into the office more difficult. This, however, can be tough since sharing personal information can lead to inherent biases. Plus, not all employees will feel comfortable sharing personal information or asking explicitly for what they need.

What needs to happen, of course, is that managers and policy-makers need to double down on their commitment to create psychological safety. Be honest with your colleagues and employees about your own struggles with creating policies that work for everyone and achieve team goals. Ask for feedback and ideas. Be humble about being in uncharted territory. 

high performing teams need psychological safety

Build psychological safety and mutual respect by being candid, opening the door for others to express their needs and apprehension about the new normal.  

Fostering a sense of belonging

When you create psychological safety in the workplace, you’re positioning values over the bottom line—and people over capital gain. This isn’t to say that psychological safety will impede your ability to be successful financially. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Work culture that values empathy, understanding and vulnerability produces better work, clear and simple. 

The more employees and teammates feel valued and heard, the more meaning they will find in their day-to-day work. This sense of pride translates to a more cohesive and productive team. While creating psychological safety takes constant work to maintain, doing so allows the entire corporation to flourish.

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