Psychological safety at work: what it is and 10 steps to create it

Last updated:
November 8, 2021
November 5, 2021
min read
Brendan McConnell
psychological safety at woek
Table of contents

With a growing shift to more permanent hybrid and remote work environments, many organizations are going through a self reflection phase where they look to determine if their existing cultures and internal dynamics can be sustained in a dispersed workforce.

That’s why you’ve seen an increase in conversations about work-life balance, diversity and inclusion, and Zoom fatigue. You’ve also likely seen more mentions of psychological safety at work.

That last one typically gets a bit less air time than other concepts, but psychological safety is critical to ensuring that your employees are happy, engaged, and performing at peak capacity. And that’s only going to become more true as remote work settles in for the long term.

What is psychological safety at work?

Psychological safety at work is a shared state of mind amongst employees on which they feel safe to speak up, share their opinions, raise concerns, and pitch ideas without fear of repercussions.

More specifically, it’s an assurance that employees won’t be punished, humiliated, or ostracized for speaking up especially, especially when that means challenging the status quo.

The underlying message that psychologically safe workplaces impart onto employees is that it’s safe to take risks, as long as you are accountable for results. By doing so, employees feel that they are trusted, supported, respected, and empowered to make decisions and share thoughts that will benefit the organization.

Psychological safety in the workplace extends beyond just work-related tasks as well. It’s also a state where employees are comfortable sharing their full and true selves, and are comfortable with putting themselves out there.

According to Dr. Timothy Clark, author of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation, there are four stages that most employees go through before they reach a state of “full” psychological safety.

These are:

  • Inclusion safety. The employee feels safe to be themselves, and is accepted for who they are.
  • Learner safety. The employee feels safe to participate in the learning process by asking questions, giving and receiving feedback, experimenting, and making mistakes.
  • Contributor safety. The employee feels safe to use their skills and abilities to make meaningful contributions and show creativity and innovation.
  • Challenger safety. The employee feels safe to speak up and challenge the status quo when needed.

There’s no set pace or timeframe that employees follow through each of the stages of psychological safety. As a leader, it’s your job to create safe environments for all members of your team, and to work individually with each direct report to ensure they feel safe to be themselves.

Why is it important to foster psychological safety?

Unsurprisingly, ensuring psychological safety for your employees comes with a wide range of benefits for direct reports, supervisors, departments, and entire companies.

In particular, psychological safety at work has been shown to:

  • Increase employee retention. Psychologically safe workplaces have less employee turnover issues, and longer-term retention of top performers. That’s because employees feel comfortable bringing their whole and true selves to work, and empowered to drive change and impact in their jobs. If employees don’t feel that way, then it’s very likely that they will look elsewhere when given the opportunity.
  • Foster inclusion and empathy. As a third component to diversity and inclusion, psychological safety is another step to allowing all people to flourish and innovate equally at your organization. If inclusion is a priority, then psychological safety is a must-have for your company.
  • Boost creativity and innovation. When people feel safe at work, they are much more likely to exchange creative ideas, try new things, and follow different hypotheses without fear of repercussion or judgment. This creates a culture that values innovation and creativity, rather than conformity. And when teams are free to innovate, that is where major breakthroughs happen that can impact market positions and profit.
  • Drive better performance. Organization that actively seek to improve psychological safety see a more engaged workforce that have been shown to increased productivity by as much as 12%. That’s because psychologically safe teams are more agile, actively learn from their mistakes, and take ownership over their outcomes. As such, they are able to create better awareness of how the team operation, better controls and processes, and, ultimately, better performance and efficiency.
  • Create happier employees. Lastly, fostering psychological safety at work is simply the right thing to do for your employees, customers, and business. Safe teams are happy and productive teams. And when they’re productive, your employees will do great things for your customers and, in turn, your company. That starts with encouraging them to be themselves, and giving them space to innovate and drive change.

If you think about it, there are no real downsides to fostering psychological safety at work. The mental (and physical) well being of your employees should be at the top of the priority list for every organization.

Related: Recruitee x OpenUp: supporting mental health at work

Steps to creating psychological safety at work

Psychological safety is one of those things that needs to start at the very top of the organization. Your executive team should be fully brought in to this initiative, and, ideally, actively contributing to creating a safe environment for everyone.

Second to the executive team comes direct supervisors and department heads. These are the people that interact with your employees everyday from a position of authority. They can make or break any psychological safety initiative based on how they treat, speak to, and interact with the colleagues around them.

According to McKinsey, “team leaders’ authoritative leadership behaviors are detrimental to psychological safety, while consultative - and supportive - leadership behaviors promote psychological safety.”

There are a variety of techniques that both executives and supervisors can take to ensure that they are taking a more consultative and supportive leadership position.

Here are some of them.

1. Show your team that you’re an engaged leader.

Give employees your full attention when speaking to them. Be fully present in meetings, practice active listening, summarize ideas and concerns back to the employee to ensure that you understand, and establish clear next steps and suggestions. This will make it clear that you not only value the employee’s opinion, but that you will take action to address concerns or suggestions.

2. Take stock of your own leadership style.

Take some time to reflect on how you interact with employees. This should include analyzing how you think, behave, and react in certain circumstances. Communicate these observations to your team, and encourage them to go through the same exercise. This will ensure that you and your team understand how to best communicate with each other in a productive manner.

3. Demonstrate concern for your team members as people.

Make time to get to know your employees on a personal level. Talk about things not related to work. Ask your employees how they’re doing and if there’s anything you can help with. This shows that you genuinely care about the person beyond just a professional relationship. This helps make your employees more comfortable about speaking up and sharing their whole selves.

4 Seek feedback.

Use 1:1 meetings to discuss suggestions and concerns in more depth. Actively solicit feedback to identify challenges and areas of improvement. Use this time to better understand each team members’ personalities and how they like to be spoken to. Look for common threads of feedback between meetings. Use that to prioritize changes in process and personal behavior.

5. Encourage open communication.

Make it clear that any and all feedback is welcome and encourage. When feedback is given - especially constructive feedback - make sure that you actively listen, engage, and respond with a proposed solution. This makes it clear that you actually want to receive feedback, and that it’s safe to do so. Actively encourage this same dynamic between team members and departments.

6. Be available.

Make sure that your team knows that you are available when needed. Communicate that you have an open door policy, and that employees can come to you with any and all concerns - work-related or not.

7. Provide multiple outlets for employees to share their thoughts.

Make sure that employees are able to communicate and share using the platforms that they are most comfortable with . This might mean ensuring that you have redundant forms of communication like email, video conferencing, collaboration tools, or chats.

8. Show that you value new ideas and perspectives.

Actively encourage participation from all team members during brainstorming session, project conversations, and any other meeting that requires diverse input. Make it clear that all ideas are welcome, and will be received in a positive manner. This send the signal that it’s safe to share thoughts and ideas, even if they run counter to the consensus.

9. Address negativity head on.

If you notice team members speaking negatively about their peers, shutting down ideas or feedback, or generally behaving in opposition to a psychologically safe workplace, talk to them about it directly. Make it clear that you will not tolerate negative treatment of others, and that all opinions are welcome. By doing so, you set a precedent for what will be tolerated, and what won’t be.

10. Include your team in decisions.

Lastly, it’s important to show your employees that their opinions are taken into consideration when making major decision. Consult your team when a major decision needs to be made. Ask for input, thoughts, and feedback. Once a decision has been make, explain your reasoning and potential impact. Even if employees don’t agree, they should at least appreciate your honest and transparency.

Trust is a major component in psychological safety at work. Your team has to trust that you truly have their best interests in mind, and that they are truly safe to share their thoughts and opinions. Trust is built over time by being open, transparent, and fair to all employees you interact with.

How to foster psychological safety in a hybrid workplace

According to McKinsey, “Our research finds that a positive team climate has a stronger effect on psychological safety in teams that experienced a greater degree of change in working remotely than in those that experienced less change during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet just 43 percent of all respondents report a positive climate within their team.”

Obviously, remote and hybrid workplace offer some unique challenge for companies looking to create psychologically safe environment.

So how do you foster a culture of psychological safety in hybrid workplaces?

Here are some tips.

  • Pick the right collaboration tools. Make sure everyone has access to any and all collaboration tools they need to have frequent and open conversations. Find ways to mimic in-person interactions online.
  • Schedule regular 1:1s. Simulate a literal open door policy by scheduling weekly 1:1 with each employees. Don’t miss these meetings. Use them to address concerns, flesh out ideas, and collect feedback,
  • Hold regular social meetings. Schedule regular meetings (or meet ups) where team members can talk about topics other than work. This helps team members to get to know each other better, making them feel more welcome and comfortable in sharing their whole selves.
  • Make psychological safety a priority. Communicate the important of psychological safety, explain the benefits and the steps you are taking to foster it on the team. Ask for help and input from the team. This is a collective and iterative process that need participation from everyone.

How to measure psychological safety in the workplace

To actively improve psychological safety, you need to find a way to measure it. That means understanding where you are currently, and measuring your progress over time.

Because psychological safety is somewhat intangible, and very subjective, this can be a challenge. Using surveys, benchmarks, and quantitative data can make this easier.

  • Create a preliminary survey that asks them questions related to psychological safety
  • Ask them to rate their answers from 0 to 5 (strongly disagree to strongly agree)
  • Ask for qualitative feedback on how to improve psychological safety
  • Use this feedback as your benchmark from which to improve
  • Analyze the data, and create a priority list of changes and strategic initiatives
  • Communicate that plan to your employees
  • Send regular pulse surveys to get data on short term impact of your new strategy
  • Send a larger survey 6-months to one year after strategy kick off
  • Measure results versus your original benchmark to determine progress
  • Tweak your plan as needed to continue your progress

Psychological safety is an ongoing consideration. It can take time to build, and can be damaged fairly easily under the wrong circumstances. Because of this, it’s critical that leadership takes an active role in creating and protecting a culture of psychological safety at your company.

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