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Think back to a moment when you were in a room with a group of people. You had something to share but were uncomfortable doing so. That discomfort might have been so significant that you kept your thoughts to yourself. At that moment, you were not experiencing psychological safety.
Psychological safety is a term coined in 1999 by Harvard scholar Amy Edmondson, and it has gained significant momentum and focus over the past 20 years. When you consider the concept of psychological safety, it may help to consider it through the lens of a wingsuit. These contraptions are relatively simple in design, yet they allow individuals to safely jump off mountains, cliffs, buildings and helicopters, engaging in risky behavior. Psychological safety in the workplace acts as a professional wingsuit, allowing professionals to take risks because they know they are safe.
What is psychological safety?
Many people wonder if psychological safety is simply about being nice or respectful to others within the workplace. Treating people respectfully and with civility are part of a psychologically safe workplace, but these two adjectives don’t capture the full complexity of psychological safety.
Psychological safety is a belief that you and others will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes. It is an absence of interpersonal fear. In a work environment, psychological safety supports the belief that taking appropriate risks regarding your behaviors in a group context is safe. Overall, there is workplace trust in place with psychological safety.
Nine steps to create psychological safety
A culture of psychological safety does not occur on its own and must be cultivated through specific action steps.
- Be present. The first step to creating psychological safety is to be present and engaged. Specific behaviors you can implement that support psychological safety include active listening, eye contact, staying off technology during conversations and asking follow-up questions regarding an idea or shared information. In a society that idealizes multitasking and “being busy,” the goal of being present can be challenging, but by doing so, we prioritize connection and psychological safety versus dysfunctional habits.
- Understand. Next, you can create a toolbox for understanding. You create psychological safety by showing that you understand or are trying to understand what is being said. One strategy to do this is through paraphrasing: “What I heard you say was…” or “I want to make sure I am clear on your point, so can you explain this?”. You ask for clarification regarding what is being shared, so your intention of understanding the other person is obvious and authentic. Body language such as nodding, leaning forward, and appropriate facial expressions demonstrate a desire to understand.
- Avoiding blame. When people are hesitant to discuss challenges or failures due to fear of retribution, blame or judgment, it hinders the optimal functioning of the individual and the team. Instead of asking, “what happened and why?” which reduces psychological safety and focuses on the past, a phrase that encourages psychological safety could be “how can we do better next time?”. This type of question focuses on the future. It encourages learning from the situation as a united team.
- Transparency. This involves the practice of sharing with your team, as a leader or as a team member, your best practices. How you work best. How you like to be recognized. How you like to communicate. This provides the script or profile for others to understand and best interact with you.
- Stop negativity. Overall the goal of psychological safety is to work together as a functional team. Negativity undermines this goal, and even worse, negativity is contagious. When team members engage in gossip, patterns of negative comments or foster drama and talk about people behind their backs, it establishes the team’s culture. Others assume that is the standard, acceptable behavior for the group and the practices continue and build, destroying psychological safety. In those moments, it is uncomfortable for most of us to address the negativity, particularly if we are the sole voice attempting to stop the behavior. Creating a plan ahead of time helps with this. Just as we did in school when we practiced fire drills to be prepared for a potential emergency, having a plan and script on what to do and say in moments where negativity is undermining psychological safety allows you to respond effectively to the situation rather than letting it go.
- Inclusive decision-making. This step encourages all team members to be part of decisions through input, feedback and sharing of their thoughts. It incorporates leaders explaining the rationale for the final decisions and celebrating all contributions. This includes those contributions that aligned with the final decision and those that might not have aligned but which helped look at all perspectives to make the final decision. This encourages individuals to continue sharing ideas regardless of the outcome.
- Welcome conflict. Conflict seems contrary to a psychologically safe culture, but conflict gets a bad rap. With healthy conflict comes the ability to receive and provide feedback; particularly for leaders, this is essential for the optimal functioning of self and the team. Healthy conflict allows team members to challenge their leader and each other, which opens up the possibility of considering new or different perspectives. This enhances psychological safety.
- Champion your team. Whether from a leadership role or a team member position, supporting and sharing the contributions of the team enhances psychological safety. This also means that when a team misses the mark regarding a goal, individual blame is not placed. Instead, the team as a unified whole uses the situation to grow knowledge and skills. Rather than focusing on placing blame, the leader and team approach the failure or challenge from a framework of curiosity with the goal of collaborative learning and troubleshooting.
- Copper connection. Copper is the most efficient electrical conductor. As a leader or team member, acting in the role of copper allows you to generate and foster relationships between team members. Having these connections at work and on our teams facilitates the other steps to create psychological safety.
Related: 7 Steps for Keeping Conflict Healthy
Why bother creating psychological safety?
Building psychological safety is not just “nice” to do. Workplaces that create and foster psychological safety reflect quantifiable benefits. These cultures have higher employee engagement which typically results in higher productivity levels. Creativity and innovation are also increased in psychologically safe organizations and teams. Ideas flow in organic ways because team members feel safe expressing themselves.
Psychological safety fosters overall well-being for team members and employees because they are more mentally healthy, contributing to their physical health. Stress levels are lower than anxiety and depression, resulting in less employee absenteeism. Finally, organizations with higher psychological safety have higher employee morale and retention. Team members are more likely to express positive statements about their organizations to individuals outside the organization.
It comes down to choice. Sticking with the way your organization or team currently functions or choosing to integrate action steps to create the benefits of a psychologically safe workplace culture.