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Why psychological safety at work matters

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.

Why Psychological Safety at Work Matters

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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

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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/networking opportunities because of gender.

it's difficult for women in tech to find the right balance

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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.

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.

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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. 

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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 wellbeing: Mental health highly contributes to overall wellbeing. 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. 

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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 ‘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. 

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

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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 is a mark of true strength, a willingness to improve, and a recipe for encouraging open and honest feedback. 

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.

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 encourage PS, team members can:

  • Practice active listening during meetings and brainstorm 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

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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 empire, 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.