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The Path to Psychological Safety at Work

Unfortunately, for many employees, the idea of approaching their bosses with bad news, feedback, or concerns can cause a pit in their stomachs and a spike in anxiety. Whether it’s a fear of social repercussions—like judgment or embarrassment—or a perceived lack of job security, this feeling of vulnerability can hinder employees and the company, especially when they feel they can’t speak up.

On the other hand, work environments where individuals feel safe to speak their minds and question the status quo often stimulate greater productivity, creativity, and innovation. In fact, nearly 90% of employees agree it’s essential, according to McKinsey.

So how can employers foster psychological safety? Let’s start by understanding what that term actually means.

What Does “Psychological Safety” Mean?

“Psychological safety” is a term coined by Amy C Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School. Defined as “a shared belief by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking,” psychological safety is simply when employees feel comfortable sharing their ideas and can take chances—without fear of punishment or humiliation.

That doesn’t mean leaders and team members are barred from giving criticism or poor performance reviews—far from it. It means that everyone’s allowed to share feedback, ask questions, learn from mistakes, and work through differences in a healthy and productive way. 

While the term was first introduced in 1999, it has emerged again as a buzzword in recent years, encouraging leaders to develop safe, inclusive environments. But before we dive into what exactly a psychologically safe workplace looks like, you might wonder why it matters in the first place.

Why Psychological Safety is Essential

Picture this: A nurse at a hospital is filling a patient's prescription when they notice the dosage is specified in milligrams instead of micrograms. However, the hierarchical and intimidating environment makes them feel afraid to question the doctor’s orders, so they administer the medication as written, causing serious side effects.

While this is an extreme example, it paints a clear picture of the importance of speaking up. Not only does the intimidation of a toxic work environment wear on the employee’s mental health, but it can also have far-reaching negative consequences.

On a business level, psychologically unsafe work environments can quickly lead to:

  • Disjointed team dynamics: Fear inhibits open dialogue, leading to miscommunication, under-reporting, and mistrust among team members.
  • Poor mental health: The constant stress and fear of retribution or ridicule can lead to anxiety, depression, and a decrease in overall mental health.
  • Lower engagement: Those who feel unsafe at work display lower levels of employee engagement, as they invest less effort into their tasks and become distant from colleagues.
  • Decreased productivity: Anxiety around harsh feedback and a fear of asking questions can severely hinder an employee’s ability to perform tasks efficiently and effectively.
  • Increased employee turnover: High stress and dissatisfaction diminish the employee experience, decreasing employee retention as workers leave for healthier environments. 

In contrast, a psychologically sage environment offers an array of advantages for both work teams and their employers, including:

  • Greater innovation and creativity: When employees are not only able but empowered to question the status quo and experiment with new ideas, they can think outside of the box to drive innovations and discover new efficiencies.
  • Improved employee wellbeing: Inclusive work environments allow each team member to be their authentic selves, contributing to better overall mental health, life quality, and an improved employee experience.
  • Better conflict resolution: Psychological safety offers workers the opportunity to engage in constructive dialogue and healthy conflict, leading to better resolutions, relationships, and team cohesion.
  • Stronger team performance: An effective team can trust each other, communicate, and collaborate to solve problems around a shared purpose.
  • Attracts and retains talent: Organizations that prioritize and demonstrate a psychologically safe workplace are highly attractive to potential and existing talent, improving recruitment efforts, and reducing employee turnover.

Gauging Psychological Safety in the Workplace

While the benefits of psychological safety are clear, it can be difficult to measure in a quantifiable way. Gathering feedback can help, but if employees fear speaking up in the first place, they are unlikely to respond honestly. 

So how do leaders gauge the safety of their workplaces? It starts by understanding the signs of mistrust and insecurity such as: 

  • Employees hesitate to express themselves or share information.
  • A pervasive sense of anxiety and stress dominates the workplace.
  • Team members are suspicious, closed-off, and reluctant to collaborate.
  • Employee engagement levels are low and they lack enthusiasm.
  • Disputes are either unresolved or escalated, without an emphasis on constructive solutions.

Of course, these are just the symptoms of an unsafe environment, but there are a variety of causes. In some instances, employees or leaders may still be affected by a previous experience or work culture. Other times, leaders lack training around psychological safety and inclusion. Whatever the case may be, there’s always the possibility of improvement.

How Leaders Can Develop a Psychological Safe Environment at Work

Psychological safety starts with a foundation of mutual respect, trust, support, and empathy among all team members—from junior-level employees up to C-suite executives. 

Here are 10 steps leaders should take to help build this foundation and foster a safer workplace culture:

1. Model Openness and Vulnerability

Leaders who demonstrate an openness to learn and a vulnerability to make mistakes pave the way for employees to feel safe to do the same. By sharing personal experiences, especially those involving challenges or failures, leaders can normalize these overcoming obstacles in the workplace. Rather than rewarding inadequacy, it demonstrates that taking risks and making mistakes are acceptable parts of learning and growth.

When leaders encourage and model transparency, they create a culture where employees are motivated to seek feedback, engage in self-improvement, and proactively address gaps in their skills and knowledge. This kind of environment not only supports professional development but also contributes to personal wellbeing, as employees feel their leaders are invested in their success, both as team members and individuals.

2. Be Accessible and Responsive

A psychologically safe workplace requires leaders to be accessible and responsive. More than keeping the office door open, it means they must engage with employees in meaningful ways. Leaders should be present in shared spaces, participate in informal gatherings, and show genuine interest in the day-to-day activities of their teams. Regular check-ins can also provide a safe space for employees to express concerns and discuss challenges without formal constraints. This can lead to quicker resolutions and more innovative solutions. 

Responsiveness is also a must. Employees need to feel like their input is heard and acted upon to have trust in their leaders. Prompt responses to emails, messages, and requests show that they are valued, but the substance of those replies matters, too. Offering guidance, constructive feedback, and follow-up discussions demonstrates a clear dedication to team growth.

3. Foster Inclusivity and Community

Going beyond just welcoming diverse groups in the workplace, inclusivity requires an active effort to ensure every employee feels equally valued and involved. Policies and practices that promote diverse hiring can help, but training programs and education around cultural competency and unconscious biases are equally important.

When everyone feels respected for their unique backgrounds and perspectives, the workplace becomes a richer, more creative space. This is crucial for building a strong community. Connecting employees professionally and socially can strengthen bonds and improve team cohesion. In addition to regular team meetings and open discussions, leaders should also facilitate non-work-related team outings to forge connections.

4. Promote Open Communication and Healthy Conflict Resolution

Communication is key to fostering inclusivity and community. Creating an environment where employees can speak openly and resolve conflicts amicably is also vital for psychological safety. Leaders can help promote this open communication by facilitating regular meetings where employees are invited to voice their concerns, experiences, and viewpoints. Training sessions on effective communication techniques and conflict resolution can also equip team members with the skills they need to engage in productive dialogues.

Moreover, leadership must set an example by handling conflicts transparently and respectfully. Demonstrating a commitment to fair and constructive conflict resolution shows that organizations value honest communication and mutual respect. This leads to a more cohesive and effective team that uses conflicts as an opportunity for growth.

5. Establish Clear Expectations

For teams to function properly, everybody needs to understand their roles, responsibilities, and shared purpose. Providing this clarity helps minimize misunderstandings and aligns team efforts toward a common objective. Leaders can use one-on-ones, team meetings, and performance reviews to reinforce expectations and provide feedback.

Beyond clarifying job roles, it’s equally important to set behavioral expectations. These guidelines should be integrated into the company culture, reflecting core values like respect, inclusion, and collaboration. Revisiting these performance and behavioral expectations regularly ensures they remain relevant, but leaders must also ensure that all team members adhere to them.

6. Build Trust Through Consistency and Integrity

In addition to creating practices and policies around expectations, employers must act on them. This is an essential part of building trust within a team. Leaders who consistently act according to the values they preach and make decisions transparently foster a strong sense of trust among their team members.

Additionally, they should also set and adhere to high ethical standards in all communications and actions. By demonstrating integrity, it encourages employees to do the same, creating a culture where honesty is valued and deception or politicking is naturally discouraged. Over time, this consistency in expectations and integrity not only cultivates trust but encourages employees to follow suit.

7. Encourage Risk Taking and Experimentation

Taking risks might sound dangerous, but it’s a key component of psychological safety. Of course, not all risks carry the same severity of consequences, but calculated risks are a cornerstone of innovation and learning. Regardless of the outcome, celebrating successes and constructive failures for the valuable insights gained helps dismantle the fear of failure and support a growth mindset among employees.

To truly embed experimentation into their workplace culture, leaders can implement policies that allocate time and resources for employees to pursue innovative projects or improvement initiatives. These might include hackathons, innovation labs, or dedicated experiment days. By institutionalizing risk-taking, organizations offer a safe space for employees to test out new ideas, reinforcing the value of creativity.

8. Emphasize Learning Over Blame 

As employees make mistakes, leaders need to avoid pointing fingers and punishing them. Instead of assigning blame, leaders should steer the conversation toward what they can learn from the incident and how similar mistakes can be avoided in the future.

This learning-focused approach not only prevents the fear associated with admitting errors but also encourages innovation and experimentation. Without the stigma of failure, employees can analyze their mistakes critically and constructively, elevating their problem-solving skills and adaptability.

9. Support Employee Development

Job security can be a serious concern for many employees, preventing them from speaking up. After all, their livelihoods depend on their jobs. To help assuage these fears, leaders can demonstrate their investment in their employees by offering tailored professional development plans. Through training, mentorship, and career advancement paths, leaders can show employees that the organization cares about their long-term success and wellbeing.

These development opportunities should be inclusive and accessible to all employees. Leaders should actively identify and eliminate any barriers that might prevent team members from participating, such as scheduling conflicts, language differences, and other accessibility issues. This not only enhances their skills but also increases their engagement and loyalty.

10. Recognize Each Individual's Contributions

Last but not least, leaders should remember that recognition goes a long way in fostering a sense of belonging and value among team members. Outside of formal reward systems, that means acknowledging achievements both big and small. While it might seem like a small gesture, it can significantly boost morale and motivation.

Personalized recognition strategies should be timely, specific, and aligned with the organization’s values, as well as the recipient’s preferences. For instance, some employees may appreciate public recognition, while others might prefer a private thank-you note. Regardless of the method, it’s important to make recognizing everyday efforts that contribute to the team’s success a consistent and thoughtful practice.

Psychological Health Is Just One Aspect of Wellness

While psychological safety is essential, it’s just one of many dimensions of employee wellness to consider. At WellRight, we’re dedicated to supporting businesses as they nurture worker wellbeing across all aspects of our lives, from physical and mental health to occupational wellness and more.

Request a demo to see how WellRight can help you start your journey toward a healthier, more productive workplace.

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