Psychological safety in the workplace is the answer to the eternal question - what makes the perfect team?
If you’ve ever tried to build a team, you’ll know it’s a science and an art. It’s not about simply plucking the highest performers, bundling them together and telling them that they’re a team. Nor is it about curating a blend of personality types or backgrounds.
In fact, ‘who’ is in your team matters less than you might think.
The secret behind high performing teams is psychological safety. The concept has been around since 1999, and it provides a fascinating insight into why some teams thrive, and others fail.
What is psychological safety?
The term psychological safety was coined by Professor Amy Edmondson. At its simplest, it’s about knowing that others will not embarrass, reject or punish you or others for speaking up.
It’s easy to understand why psychological safety in the workplace is so important. If someone is worried about contributing because they expect to get laughed at, ignored or chastised, then they won’t.
A lack of psychological safety leads to imbalanced teams dominated by the most powerful or loudest people. As well as creating a stressful environment, it means that only a limited number of team members express their views and opinions. And as you might guess, the loudest or most dominant person in a group doesn’t necessarily have the best ideas. No surprises then that a lack of psychological safety in the workplace quickly stifles creativity and dampens employee engagement.
Why psychological safety matters in the workplace
If team members feel wary of adding value, unsure of their contribution or afraid of making mistakes, their entire team suffers. Unsurprisingly then, there are clear benefits to establishing a sense of psychological safety in your workplace.
Benefits for employees
Psychological safety in the workplace creates an environment where employees can do their best work. As well as feeling that they can share their ideas without fear of being shot down or ridiculed, they feel safe in disagreeing with others. And being able to respectfully disagree with colleagues is an essential component in finding a better overall outcome.
What’s more, psychological safety allows employees to be themselves and this in turn improves a sense of belonging and engagement. Perhaps they’ll feel safe in admitting that they don’t know or understand something. Or maybe they’ll feel free in explaining that they’re having a tough time in their personal life. By sharing this information, they permit others to help them out - either by explaining something or by providing space and support while they work things out.
Benefits for leaders
Leaders who facilitate psychological safety in the workplace benefit from a team that delivers goals more effectively. Instead of dealing with conflict, slow progress or a lack of inspiration, the leader can take pleasure in the output that comes from this collaborative environment.
There’s another benefit to encouraging psychological safety. Team members will be more likely to help one another out instead of deferring to the leader for help. This leaves leaders with more time to work through their to-do lists and frees up time for more creative thought.
Benefits for business
With happier employees and more effective leaders, we see stronger businesses. Workplaces with good psychological safety will benefit from better ideas and more creative approaches to problem solving. This in turn results in improved service delivery and a competitive advantage.
Psychological safety can also help with employee satisfaction. Not only can it foster improved employee resilience, but it’s a great way of helping new or junior employees learn without worrying about appearing ignorant if they don’t know something.
10 ways to nurture psychological safety in your workplace
1. Set clear boundaries
Put boundaries in place to encourage psychological safety. Make it clear that you have a zero-tolerance approach towards discrimination, bullying and harassment to ensure employees feel safe. This should be reflected in policies, the employee handbook, inductions, and training.
2. Check in with your team
Regular check-ins with your team will create a feeling of familiarity and safety, especially where employees are working remotely. Initially, the onus may be on leaders to share how they are feeling – perhaps by sharing a problem they’ve had with a certain client or by telling the team that they’re having issues with a parent’s health. This will show that the check-ins are more than lip service and will encourage employees to become more open.
3. Be social
Socialising with your team is essential in building up the familiarity that’s needed for psychological safety. You can socialise remotely or in-person, it doesn’t matter – any opportunity to have the occasional coffee catch up or team event is time well-used.
4. Provide regular, clear feedback
Clear feedback is pivotal to psychological safety in the workplace. By respectfully and consistently providing timely feedback, you can reinforce the positive work that your employees do and course-correct them on development areas.
5. Be open to feedback
As well as being comfortable in providing feedback, it’s essential to accept feedback from others. This doesn’t mean waiting for proactive feedback, but instead actively requesting feedback from your employees. Asking for feedback in one-to-one meetings is a great way to get things started. You could also send a weekly email asking your team to let you know what they thought you did well and where they thought you could have done better. By acknowledging this feedback and acting on it, you will set a powerful example.
6. Acknowledge your weaknesses
No-one can do everything – which is why you hire people who are better than you at specific tasks. So let your employees do their job and trust in their ability.
7. Ask questions
By asking questions you demonstrate that you don’t know the answers. Ask questions in the spirit of curiosity and you’ll encourage the rest of the team to follow suit.
8. Don’t make failure a dirty word
Fear of failure is a shortcut to failure. Embrace a growth mindset and let your team know they can make mistakes, and that they will be supported if they do.
9. Have regular project updates
Psychological safety in the workplace requires a sense of togetherness. This means that regular updates and check-ins are essential, especially if you’re dealing with a remote team. As well as reinforcing the team’s bond, it allows the team to ensure everything is running to plan - and to allow for course-correction if not.
10. Continue to nurture psychological safety
Developing psychological safety isn’t a one-off task. Brené Brown describes building trust (and therefore psychological safety) like filling up a jar with marbles. It is the small yet positive interactions that build up trust over time.
Psychological safety is a fascinating topic with enormous benefits for any kind of workplace. If you’re interesting in learning more about psychological safety, watch this Ted Talk by Amy Edmonson.
Author: Laura Sands
Laura is a writer who enjoys getting into the detail of subjects and sharing that knowledge with snappy, interesting content. When not typing away, she enjoys walks in the woods and curling up with a good book and mug of something hot.