Why psychological safety at work matters and how to create it

October 20, 2021 - 23 min read

2 co-workers-laugh-in-office-why-psychological-safety-matters

Jump to section

What is psychological safety?

Why is psychological safety important in the workplace?

What are the 4 stages of psychological safety?

How leaders can promote team psychological safety:

How team members can promote psychological safety at work

Make psychological safety a priority

BE THE FIRST TO KNOW

Stay up to date with new resources and insights.

Subscribe

I remember back when I read the Atlantic cover story, "Why is Silicon Valley So Awful to Women" — as a Latina working for a tech company, this story struck a real chord with me.

This, along with other news stories, revealed to me that women are still underrepresented in the tech industry. The evidence is alarming, but the underlying reasons are even more so.

According to the Center for Talent Innovation, “undermining behavior from managers” is a major factor in women dropping out of tech. In fact, a survey found that 87% of women had witnessed demeaning comments from their colleagues and 66% felt excluded from key social/networking opportunities because of gender.

 

And unfortunately, little evidence that diversity programs affect lasting change, since some companies continue with the same “one-and-done” approaches, like mandatory training.

It’s vital that companies rethink traditional approaches and invest in creating and fostering psychologically safe environments. 

In this article, we’ll cover what psychological safety is, why it’s important, and how leaders can promote it in the workplace.

subscribe

What is psychological safety?

Safety, according to Maslow’s hierarchy, is a “basic human need.” 

To support high-performing teams, creating psychologically safe work environments is critical to not only basic human decency, but retention. 

So what does that mean?

The term psychological safety was coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson. She defines it as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” Establishing a climate of psychological safety allows space for people to speak up and share their ideas.

Edmondson and Harvard Business School professor Jeff Polzer say that when it comes to creating psychologically safe environments, establishing norms is critical to success and participation

For leaders, speaking out is actually less important than how we react and respond to other team members.  

To tie this back to the Atlantic cover story I mentioned earlier, creating a psychologically safe environment can also act as a buffer against undermining behavior that’s driving so many women away from tech. 

Why is psychological safety important in the workplace?

An effective team values psychological safety as much as they do physical safety and meeting company performance standards. 

Psychological safety in the workplace is important because it:

Enhances employee engagement: When team members feel safe at work, it’s easier for them to participate in a team meeting, solve problems, collaborate on projects, and engage with their customers and peers. Additionally, safe teams inspire employees to be fully present at work versus dozing off or counting the hours until the workday is over. 

Fosters an inclusive workplace culture: It’s more important than ever to make ALL team members feel included. Safe workspaces welcome diverse teams and allow all team members to flourish regardless of gender, color, race, background, or political preferences. The result is a rich give-and-take experience where everyone feels connected and part of a united front.

Inspires creativity and ideas: In order for creativity and ideas to flow organically, team members must feel safe expressing themselves. Imagine how many inspired ideas were never shared because a team member didn't feel safe sharing.

Improves employee well-being: Mental health highly contributes to overall well-being. When employees are mentally healthy (psychologically safe), it's easier for them to perform at an optimal level and avoid stressors that keep them from doing their best.

Creates brand ambassadors: Creating a psychologically safe workplace is one of the best ways to inspire team members to constantly brag about you. Team members can’t help but gush about how wonderful work is when they’re being treated right.

Reduces employee turnover: A recent study reported that team members who feel psychologically safe at work are less likely to leave. In the end, why leave a company that treats you with respect and makes you feel safe and valued? Not to mention, the horrendous costs that come with finding, interviewing, hiring, and training team members (among other costs). High employee turnover isn’t sustainable for successful businesses. 

man-and-woman-listen-to-coworker-in-hallway-why-psychological-safety-matters

Boosts team performance: When you’ve got highly engaged employees that don’t want to leave, an inclusive workplace culture, brand ambassadors, inspired ideas, and healthy employees, you’ve got a winning recipe for boosting team performance.

It’s time to put a "psychologically safe workplace" on the list of basic human rights and hold businesses accountable for implementing it. 

What are the 4 stages of psychological safety?

The four stages of psychological safety developed by Dr. Timothy Clark are:

Stage 1: Inclusion safety

This level of safety refers to satisfying the basic human need of connecting and belonging. In this first stage, you feel safe and accepted to be who you are — quirky characteristics and all. 

Stage 2: Learner safety

In this stage, you feel safe to learn, ask questions, and experiment. You feel open to giving and receiving feedback (and you even feel safe to make mistakes). 

Stage 3: Contributor safety

At this point, you finally feel safe to make a valuable contribution using your skills and gifts.

Stage 4: Challenger safety 

This final stage involves feeling safe enough to challenge the status quo when you see an opportunity for change or improvement. 

According to Dr. Clark, team members must progress through these stages in order to feel comfortable enough to speak up and make valuable contributions.  

How to know if your employees feel safe

While many managers may not recognize the importance of psychological safety for effective teamwork or problem solving, not too many team leaders these days would say that they are actively trying to create an environment that feels unsafe. They just don't prioritize it with their teams and may think the focus on it is overblown. 

In some work cultures, toughness, aggressive challenging, or the ability to roll with the punches and "take a ribbing" are valued. The idea that some team members don't feel safe might be seen as their own problem, a lack of fit.

What these leaders might miss is how no one on the team feels psychologically safe, even those who fit in with the group. And that lack of psychological safety might be costing the team and the organization. 

When team members don't feel safe, they adjust their behaviors and responses and create a less effective team. If everyone in the team is doing it, the team leader may not realize how much disengagement and unproductive behavior has taken root. 

So how can a manager or leader tell if their team members feel safe? We can take a cue from how researchers measure psychological safety:

    • Your employees are actively sharing opinions that are different from each others' or the manager's
    • People use clear, direct, respectful language without adding a lot of caveats or trying too hard not to offend
    • When someone asks for feedback, others give them feedback, both positive and negative 
    • Negative feedback is received as constructive criticism and an opportunity to learn, collaborate, or mentor
    • There are multiple channels for employee feedback
    • You don't hear anything in conversation after a meeting that is at odds with what is expressed in the meeting
    • At status meetings, people regularly share aspects of projects that are at risk or not going well
    • Few bad surprises. It is rare that projects have gone badly off-track or behind schedule without leaders being aware
    • You might also consider periodically using the same set of questions Amy Edmondson used in an anonymous online survey across your teams.
group-of-coworkers-sit-around-table-psychological-safety
BE THE FIRST TO KNOW

Stay up to date with new resources and insights.

Subscribe

How leaders can promote team psychological safety

It’s crucial to prioritize high psychological safety to create a high-performing team. 

As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. Team cultures reflect the actions and reactions of their leaders. Leaders who fail to establish and support psychologically safe team environments can cause irreparable negative consequences and damage to the organization.

Ultimately, creating a psychologically safe work environment starts with coaching that focuses on deep behavior change. This starts with each team member and spreads throughout the organization. 

Changing cultural norms requires progressive learning by everyone in the company. Having a coach to guide these processes at the individual level ensures that these important behavior changes are being taught correctly and reinforced in real-time through experiential learning.

To establish and maintain a psychologically safe work climate, leaders must consistently model inclusive behaviors in order to build out new team norms over time. 

Here are eight ways leaders can promote team psychological safety.

1. Practice genuine curiosity

Ask team members to weigh in with their thoughts and expertise. This is especially important to practice at times in which their opinions may challenge your thinking. 

Dive deep, ask questions, and ask for feedback from other team members too. Don’t assume team members are wrong just because you disagree. 

Peel the onion and learn from your team as much as they learn from you (if not more).  

2. Recognize courageous acts

When a team member shows vulnerability by offering a new idea, asking a question, or sharing a mistake, it’s important to praise, acknowledge, and appreciate these acts of courage. 

The worst thing that you can do is make a team member feel embarrassed, unheard, or undervalued after expressing vulnerability. 

3. Promote respect

If a team member engages in undermining, shaming, or any behavior that discourages others from speaking up, such as saying “that doesn’t make any sense,” don’t condone or ignore this behavior. 

Intervene and share how such statements can impede creativity and innovation, including the sharing of concerns, ideas, and questions.

4. Lead by example 

You can't expect team members to perform a certain way or feel safe if you don't lead by example. 

This means apologizing when you make a mistake, demonstrating considerate communication, showing empathy, and asking for help when you need it.

5. Embrace vulnerability 

According to Edmondson, leaders owning their vulnerability and fallibility is a mark of true strength, a willingness to improve, and a recipe for encouraging open and honest feedback. When leaders acknowledge their own fallibility, it allows the team and the organization to learn and improve.

Importantly, it creates space for others to admit their own and models that ownership of mistakes is valued by the company.

This is even truer when it comes to remote work (in addition to online tools like polls, votes, and yes/no buttons).

6. Foster candid conversation

Pay attention to how teams operate. Is everyone given an opportunity to speak up? Are some more silent than others? Work to foster equal speaking time for everyone. 

Use ice breakers and calm environments to quickly get over any awkwardness or tension. Consider having company outings or virtual hangouts so team members can feel free to let their guard down and be themselves. 

This is also a great time to get to know each other on a deeper level. 

7. Hold retrospectives

Holding retrospectives following major projects creates a norm of learning and growing. It gives the team space to acknowledge mistakes, wins, and opportunities to develop. 

Give everyone a role, so that all team members feel safe enough to analyze and critique what went right and wrong. Take it a step further by recording everyone’s thoughts and creating a template or improved system for future projects. 

8. Empower from a place of privilege

If you’re someone who isn’t underrepresented in your community, make efforts to leverage your privilege to empower underrepresented colleagues.

Examples of this include highlighting team members’ accomplishments among others and recommending them for high visibility assignments and projects. Sustained visible support is equally important. For example, volunteer to sponsor an employee resource group and attend the events hosted by employee resource groups whether or not you are a sponsor. This shows actual interest and appreciation that can help build trust.

Creating an environment of psychological safety takes conscious awareness and a commitment to learning new behaviors, but the tradeoff is more than worth it — and necessary. 

Beyond the obvious advantages of avoiding groupthink and creating an efficient team, dedicating resources to establishing the behaviors that lend themselves to psychological safety will help you retain talented female teammates who deserve to have their seats at the table. 

Long-term, your entire organization will benefit.

How team members can promote psychological safety at work

For psychological safety to work for teams, everyone has to commit to it — including leaders and team members.

To develop a culture where psychological safety is the norm, managers can try out these 4 psychological safety exercises:

    • Pose a check-in question. Make a practice of taking 3 minutes at the beginning of meetings to pose a non-work-related check-in question to participants. This allows people to see each other from a different angle and as whole people rather than just a role.

      At BetterUp, these questions range from light-hearted, such as what was your favorite song in high school or what is the most memorable place you have visited, to sharing around wellness and our current state of well-being, like what do you do to destress mid-day?

      In smaller groups, you might go around and have everyone weigh in. In larger groups, just throw it open for a few minutes.  
    • Host an Anxiety Party. This term, as explained by Daniel Burka, describes a practice used by the Google Ventures design team to create a structure for bringing anxieties out in the open. It also normalizes vulnerability and uncertainty.

      Have each person spend 10 minutes writing down all the work- and project-related anxieties they felt. Then go around the circle, share their biggest anxiety, and let their colleagues rank each anxiety on a scale of 0 (not troubling at all) to 5 (I strongly believe you need to improve this area).

      These parties aren't about problem-solving — they gave people a structure for sharing and building trust with peers.
    • Start alone. Make use of pre-work, silent individual reflection, and writing down ideas prior to having a group begin brainstorming or weighing in on someone's work. This allows people with less voice to participate equally and also works against the "piling on" that happens when a powerful voice moves in one direction and suddenly everyone else agrees.
    • Share your stories. Employees follow the lead set by the leaders. When a manager shares their mistakes or struggles, the team has a model for how to share and be supportive with each other. As Brene Brown has said, being vulnerable isn't the same as not having a filter. As a leader, be clear about what your intent is in sharing a story. It should be to build trust and deepen your relationship with the team, not to unburden yourself. 

 

Psychological safety doesn't just come from the top. Team members need to take responsibility for creating a better environment for each other.

    • Practice active listening during meetings and brainstorming sessions
    • Ask thought-provoking, open-ended questions
    • Give support and ask for support when needed
    • Embrace all team members’ unique gifts and expertise
    • Show empathy, care, and concern for each other
    • Praise, encourage, and express gratitude for one another
    • Express their creative ideas and politely encourage others to do the same
    • Give each other the benefit of the doubt when expressing challenges 

With a focus on inclusion, consideration, and thoughtful communication, team members can do their part in fostering a psychologically safe work environment.

Inclusive leaders build inclusive teams where great work happens

BE THE FIRST TO KNOW

Stay up to date with new resources and insights.

Subscribe

Make psychological safety a priority

Psychological safety shouldn’t be a "nice to have" job perk. It should be a vital part of every company’s culture and future. 

In the workplace, psychological safety must be a top priority if businesses want to create a successful enterprise, and more importantly, contribute to an inclusive, diverse, and accepting workplace where team members feel safe to express themselves. 

At the end of the day, the mark of a good company is its team members.

belonging-conversations-cta

Published October 20, 2021

Dr. Jacinta Jiménez, PsyD

Vice President, Coach Innovation

Read Next

Stay connected with BetterUp

Get our newsletter, event invites, plus product insights and research.