By making psychological safety a priority, you can create an environment that empowers your employees.
Imagine you encounter a problem at work with one of your co-workers. Depending on the severity, you may want to speak with your team, manager, or high-level leadership about the issue. Do you feel safe reporting the incident? Or do you fear retribution?
Psychological safety refers to how safe an individual feels speaking up, admitting mistakes, or being themselves in an environment without fear of being shamed or degraded. In this article, we explore why this is important and how businesses can create a psychologically safe workplace.
Understanding the Importance of Psychological Safety
Psychological safety is more than an optional work environment perk–it is a human need going back to prehistoric times. To survive and flourish, we seek places (and people) that make us feel safe.
A McKinsey study revealed that 89% of employees consider psychological safety in the workplace essential. Despite this majority, another global study by McKinsey of over 1,500 individuals showed few business leaders promote a psychologically safe environment.
Psychological safety benefits both employees and companies. Employees enjoy a more inclusive space that encourages their creativity and critical thinking skills while organizations experience less turnover, more productivity, and better team performance.
A thriving work culture is built on a foundation of psychological safety. You can read more about human factors and company culture in our previous article.
Measuring Psychological Safety
How do you know if your employees feel safe at work? As a leader, it is critical to evaluate whether your workplace promotes psychological safety.
One way to start is by observing meetings. Do people of all positions ask questions, suggest ideas, or point out problems? If employees feel safe, they should be comfortable sharing their thoughts and opinions.
Consider if feedback is sought after. Do workers seek and give positive and negative feedback? Is negative feedback viewed as constructive criticism? Do people ask for support when they need it?
To help ensure you aren’t interpreting through your biases, survey responses from the entire company help you view the organization’s psychological safety rating objectively. It can also point out if different departments experience different levels of safety and pinpoint immediate needs. You can find inspiration for survey questions here.
Creating a Psychologically Safe Workplace
Author and founder of the Weber Consulting Group, Craig Weber, writes, “...the biggest challenge with psychological safety isn’t explaining it – it’s creating it. You can’t espouse it into existence. You can’t mandate it. You can’t order it online and have it delivered. You can’t hire someone to install it for you. You have to build it.”
Weber explains that holding crucial discussions with compassion and a constructive mindset (also called conversational capacity) is key to making psychological safety a reality. We explored more about this skill in a previous article.
If your workplace can’t hold difficult discussions, it can be hard for employees to feel comfortable. Growing conversational capacity skills is the best way to build a psychologically safe workspace.
With that in mind, here are some specific things you can do to foster psychological safety.
Training sessions. Hold regular conversational capacity training sessions for new and current employees and underscore the connection to psychological safety. Build on sessions with continuous practice.
Lead by example. Show conversational capacity in action by actively listening, encouraging others to share their opinions and ideas, and discouraging negativity. When problems arise, focus on solutions, not blaming others for mistakes.
Encourage open conversations. Motivate employees to be open about their anxieties, worries, and other issues they are experiencing in and outside of the workplace. The goal is to build trust and a safe place to share.
Provide comfortable start points and feedback options. You can’t expect everyone to develop their conversational capacity skills and feel more psychologically safe at the same rate. Encourage development in multiple ways: group settings, one-on-ones, suggestion boxes, surveys, and more. Let employees ease into the changes to avoid adding more stress.
Prioritizing psychological safety in the workplace should not be a luxury; it's a fundamental human need. Fostering an environment where individuals feel safe to speak up, make mistakes, and be themselves leads to increased creativity, higher productivity, reduced turnover, and improved team performance.