Why psychological safety at work matters and how to create it

March 4, 2022 - 25 min read

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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 and networking opportunities because of gender.

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

It’s vital that companies rethink traditional approaches. This includes investing 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.

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. This is beyond only basic human decency, but employee 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 says 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. Psychological safety can work as a bumper against undermining behavior that’s driving so many women away from tech. 

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7 reasons why psychological safety is important at work

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

Psychological safety in the workplace is important because it:

  1. Enhances employee engagement. When team members feel safe at work, it’s easier for them to engage. This could be in a team meeting, solving problems, collaborating on projects, and engaging 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. 
  2. Fosters an inclusive workplace culture. It’s more important than ever to make all team members feel included. Safe workspaces welcome diverse teams.

    They 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Improves employee well-being. Mental health highly contributes to overall well-being. When employees are mentally healthy, it's easier for them to perform at an optimal level and avoid stressors that keep them from doing their best.
  5. 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.
  6. 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?

    There are horrendous costs that come with interviewing, hiring, and training team members (among other costs). High employee turnover isn’t sustainable for successful businesses. 
  7. Boosts team performance. When you’ve got highly engaged employees that don’t want to leave, teams perform. When you have an inclusive workplace culture, brand ambassadors, inspired ideas, teams perform.

    When you have healthy employees in addition to all of the above, you’ve got a winning recipe for boosting team performance.

psychological-safety-co-workers-smiling

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

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.  

6 tips for fostering psychological safety in your workplace 

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.

Creating a psychologically safe work environment starts with coaching focused on behavior change. This starts with each team member and spreads throughout the organization. 

Changing cultural norms requires progressive learning by everyone in the company. A coach to guide these processes at the individual level ensures that behavior changes are being taught correctly. It's 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 six ways you can foster psychological safety in your workplace. 

1. Practice active listening and 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). 

psychological-safety-two-women-working 

Just as important as curiosity is the role of active listening. Active listening ensures people feel valued and that they can contribute to the team. Ideas to improve listening include:

  • Leave phones at the door (or on the desk) during meetings
  • Show understanding by repeating what was said
  • Encourage people to share more by asking questions
  • If certain individuals rarely speak during meetings, actively ask them for their opinion

2. Promote respect

If a team member engages in undermining, shaming, or any behavior that discourages others from speaking up, don’t condone it. But also, don't ignore this behavior. 

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

3. Lead by example 

Anyone in a position of responsibility should set an example for the rest of the company. This is applicable from senior management, down to team leads and managers. If done properly, the set of behaviors should become a norm across the company.

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.

4. Embrace vulnerability 

According to Edmondson, leaders owning their vulnerability and fallibility is a mark of true strength. It shows 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).

5. Foster an open conversation (with a growth mindset) 

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. 

In order to break free of judgment and strengthen the relationship between team members, it’s important to have an open mindset. Often we look at things from our own lens, but approaching them from a different angle can help bring perspective. In order to develop an open mindset at the workplace:

  • Encourage teams to share feedback with one another
  • Help them learn how to respond to input from others
  • Encourage teams and individuals to see feedback as a way to strengthen and build upon their ideas and processes.

6. 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. Recommend underrepresented team members for high visibility assignments and projects. Sustained visible support is equally important.

For example, volunteer to sponsor an employee resource group. 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 self-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, dedicated resources will help. This helps to establishing the behaviors that lend themselves to psychological safety. By doing you, you'll 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 four 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.
  • Host an Anxiety Party. This term, as explained by Daniel Burka, describes a practice used by the Google Ventures design team. It creates 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.  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 to participate equally. It 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.

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How to foster psychological safety in a virtual workplace

In this virtual world, you may feel like it’s harder to measure psychological safety. The pandemic forced many organizations to move their workforce remote. And even if members of a team are transitioning to hybrid work, it's likely virtual work is here to stay.

After all, meetings are all on Zoom. Communication is largely email, Slack, or other messaging platforms. And it can be difficult to gauge things like body language. You also miss out on those ad-hoc, one-off conversations or check-ins that you may traditionally have in the break room. 

That’s OK. There are still ways you can foster psychological safety in a virtual workplace

  • Schedule regular one-on-one meetings with your teammates. You don’t need to be a manager to schedule a one-on-one, either. But having these important check-ins reiterate that you care and want to invest time in the relationship. 
  • Go out of your way to ask for feedback. Make it easy for employees to share their feedback. Give them plenty of opportunities to do so — and receive and respond to feedback gracefully. 
  • Carve out time in a team meeting for meaningful conversation. It’s easy to just dive right in to work. Be intentional about raising topics that might not be work-related. Or, source topic ideas from team members that aren’t work-related. 
  • Create asynchronous communication channels. Regardless of what time zones your employees are working from, all should have the ability to communicate with one another. At BetterUp, we use Slack for most of our team communication in this hybrid and remote environment
  • Make yourself vulnerable. Again, this is easier said than done. If you’re struggling with caregiving or childcare, it’s likely someone else is, too. If you’re feeling lonely or isolated, someone else probably is feeling the same. Vulnerability is strength. 

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. 

In some work cultures, toughness, aggressive challenging, or the ability to roll with the punches 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
  • 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

Make psychological safety a priority 

Your organization should be a workplace for learning, innovation, and growth. That learning and growth hinges on interpersonal trust, self-awareness, and psychological safety. 

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, team psychological safety must be a top priority if businesses want to create a successful enterprise. And, more importantly, psychological safety contributes to an inclusive, diverse, and accepting workplace. A 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.

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Published March 4, 2022

Dr. Jacinta Jiménez, PsyD

Vice President, Coach Innovation

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