Psychological safety is the foundation for happy, engaged, high-performing teams. It has been linked to increased productivity and employee retention, and it’s an absolute necessity if you want to build a culture that fosters diversity, inclusion, and belonging (DIB).
But what exactly is psychological safety and how can you create it?
What Is Psychological Safety in the Workplace and Why Does It Matter?
Defining psychological safety
Psychological safety is defined as “the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.’
It’s a feeling and a culture, an environment that allows people to show up to work as their authentic selves, secure in the belief that their contribution is valued and that they can be respectfully open and honest without risk of punishment.
The importance of psychological safety at work
Psychological safety at work is crucial to employee happiness, well-being, and engagement, and is the foundation for a culture that fosters diversity, inclusion, and belonging, in addition to driving team performance.
Let’s compare a psychologically safe workplace culture to a fear-driven one. In the former, people feel safe enough to be vulnerable, to come forward with new ideas, to speak up against things they don’t agree with, and to provide honest feedback. This allows teams to make mistakes they can learn from, to innovate and think outside the box, to address concerns promptly and efficiently, and ultimately to trust each other.
In a fear-driven workplace culture, employees won’t do any of those things for fear of negative consequences. They’ll keep their heads down and go along with the status quo rather than risk rocking the boat. As a result, leaders will rarely receive honest feedback or be made aware of issues, while potentially groundbreaking ideas will remain unshared.
And this isn’t just based on assumptions. Research has repeatedly shown that psychologically safe teams are more effective. Google, for example, conducted a two-year study into what drives high-performing teams — and they found psychological safety to be the most important factor.
They also found that “individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, bring in more revenue, and are rated as effective twice as often by executives.”
In a nutshell: Psychological safety at work equals high-performing, happy teams.
5 Steps to Create Psychological Safety for Employees
1. Establish an open and respectful communication culture
Communication is at the heart of psychological safety, so it’s essential to create a climate of honesty and openness. There are several ways you can foster a psychologically safe workplace culture:
- Provide a variety of methods and channels through which people can share their thoughts and feedback. Not everybody will be comfortable speaking up in front of a group, but they might be able to provide valuable input through an anonymous suggestion box, via a written survey, or in an online discussion.
- Ask open-ended questions, and encourage questions from others. Instead of asking “What’s the progress on project X?” or “Is everything going well?”, ask open-ended questions such as “How’s it going with project X?” or even “How’s it going?” This creates more space for people to share their true thoughts, rather than responding with a simple “Yes”, “No”, or “Fine, thanks.” At the same time, actively encourage questions from others. For example, if you’re about to end a meeting where a decision has been made, put ten minutes aside for people to reflect and ask questions.
- Communicate with empathy. Listen actively, acknowledge people’s fears and concerns, and be considerate of how your message might come across in different channels. For example, when communicating via email or an instant messaging tool, without the additional context of tone, facial expression, and body language, your message may be open to misinterpretation.
2. Be transparent — this builds trust
In a psychologically safe workplace, employees trust not only their peers, but also their managers. More specifically, they trust them to be as open and honest as possible.
Here are some steps you can take to improve transparency across your organization:
- Make sure your employees are the first to know about changes. Whether big or small, changes that will impact your employees in some way should be communicated clearly and promptly. Don’t let your employees hear about them from a friend who works at another company, or informally from a colleague in a more senior position. This breeds confusion and insecurity. Share them in an official capacity as soon as you can, and inform everybody who needs to know at the same time. And be honest about what these changes will mean — otherwise, people will fear the worst and jump to their own conclusions.
- Be transparent about how decisions are made. In addition to sharing big decisions and changes, it helps to be transparent about how and why these decisions were made. Of course, it isn’t possible or necessary to share every single step in the decision-making process, but it’s important to give people an understanding of the reasons behind it.
- Share the good and the bad. There’s nothing more unsettling than only ever hearing the good news or radio silence. Don’t keep people in the dark about the not-so-positive aspects of business — this might lead them to assume that the situation is more dire than it actually is, and cause unnecessary worry. Share both the good and the bad, with honesty and reassurance in equal measure.
While oversharing isn’t wise, transparency when appropriate saves people from second-guessing and wondering what’s going on. The key is to strike a balance: Share openly and directly when necessary, but don’t burden your employees with needless stress.
3. Set clear expectations
If you keep changing your mind, nobody will know where they stand. Instead, give your employees concrete goals to work towards and allow them a fair shot at achieving them.
Establishing clear expectations includes:
- Setting concrete goals and articulating them clearly. Make sure each department, team, and individual has clear goals that they’re working towards (and that they understand why these goals are important). On the individual level, work with each employee to set goals collaboratively. This allows them to have a hand in shaping their own career trajectory and empowers them to focus on areas they’re particularly passionate about. Document goals clearly in a shared space and have regular check-ins to review them.
- Defining what success looks like. In addition to setting goals, work collaboratively with teams and individuals to establish a shared understanding of what success looks like. Align on how success will be measured (e.g. what metrics will you be monitoring?) and agree on a realistic timeframe for each goal. This provides clarity on what people are working towards and the benchmarks they’re being held to.
- Supporting your employees in reaching their goals. Don’t just set goals and targets; empower your employees to reach them. When setting or reviewing goals, discuss what kinds of tools, resources, and support they feel they need in order to succeed and align on what’s feasible — then deliver on it! This shows your employees that you’re on their side and rooting for them to do well.
4. Reframe failure and mistakes as learning opportunities
One of the core tenets of psychological safety is feeling safe to take risks. People won’t do this if they’re scared of failure, so it’s important to evaluate how you talk about mistakes and deal with them as an organization.
Here’s how you can reframe the narrative around failure to promote psychological safety:
- Own your own failures and mistakes. You can’t expect others to feel safe taking risks if they never see or hear about their managers getting it wrong sometimes. As a leader, speak candidly about your own experiences with failure — and be quick to acknowledge it if you realize you did something wrong or could have done better in a certain situation. Your colleagues will not only appreciate your honesty, they’ll also feel emboldened to make their own mistakes without fear of major consequences.
- Consider how you talk about “failure” and “mistakes“. Are they mistakes and failures? Or are they simply risks and ideas that didn’t work out, but present valuable learning opportunities all the same? If you frame failure as the worst possible thing that could happen, no one will dare to suggest trying something new. But, if you frame it as a chance to learn and grow, it feels like less of a gamble.
- Encourage carefully considered risks. Embracing failure isn’t about encouraging people to act impulsively or carelessly. Equip your team with the tools to make calculated, carefully considered risks — for example, weighing the pros and cons beforehand and assessing whether the potential positive impact is worth the potential negative impact. Furthermore, encourage your employees to come up with a contingency plan in the event of things not working out as hoped.
5. Take a supportive and consultative approach to leadership
A McKinsey study found that certain leadership behaviors have both a direct and indirect impact on psychological safety and workplace culture. Authoritative leadership behaviors were found to be detrimental to psychological safety, while consultative and supportive leadership behaviors promote it.
Consultative leadership is about leveraging other people’s skills, perspectives, and ideas to make decisions. Supportive leadership is about providing people with the tools and resources they need to develop skills that will allow them to work autonomously.
Here’s how to lead in a way that’s both supportive and consultative:
- Make decisions collaboratively. Where possible, include your team in the decision-making process. Create dedicated forums where they can share ideas and give feedback on any approaches or initiatives that are under consideration. Also be transparent about how and why decisions are made when they’re not done so collaboratively.
- Check in with team members regularly and build a rapport. To be a supportive leader, you need to understand what your employees need and what makes them tick. Everybody is different, and the best type of support will vary from one person to the next. Check in regularly with your employees and get to know them on an individual level so you can support them in a way that matches their unique needs.
- Run workshops. Workshops are a great way to foster collaboration and reach decisions as a team. Unlike meetings, workshops are activity-based and focus on finding a solution to one specific challenge. You can run workshops to generate new ideas, to align on a plan of action for an upcoming initiative, or to retrospectively review the success of a past project. The basis of a good workshop is that everybody is encouraged to contribute and all ideas are welcome.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what company benefits you provide or how well you pay your employees if you’re not also creating an environment of psychological safety. Without this crucial pillar, you’ll never see people reach their full potential.