Psychological safety at work

We believe psychological safety is just as important to mental health as self-care and work-life balance are. Having a culture of psychological safety at work helps people challenge themselves and achieve more without a negative mental or emotional impact. 

Psychological safety has been shown to improve performance, engagement, and learning behaviors – three things worth investing in.

What is psychological safety at work?

The term ‘psychological safety’ was introduced by behavioral scientist Amy C. Edmondson of Harvard, who defined it as follows:

“Psychological safety is a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”

This means operating in a team where people are comfortable expressing themselves and are not worried that they will be punished or embarrassed for bringing up ideas, questions, concerns, or even making mistakes. 

In fact, in truly psychologically safe environments, people have more fear about holding back than they do about sharing something potentially sensitive or even “wrong.”

What is NOT psychological safety at work?

Being “nice”

Safety is not the same as being comfortable, and disagreements are not dangerous. Psychologically safe teams are not places where all you hear is praise and agreement. Rather, psychological safety sets the stage for radical candor, productive disagreements, and exploring conflicting ideas. This may not feel “comfortable” to some people, but it’s how the diversity of thought thrives, and people can be their true selves at work.

Trusting each other

Trust and psychological safety are two related concepts, but they are different. Trust is about interactions between two people or parties, where psychological safety occurs at the group level. Interestingly, people working together “tend to have similar perceptions of whether or not the climate is psychologically safe.” (APA. Edmondson, A. C. (2018). The fearless organization. John Wiley & Sons)

“One way to put this is that trust is about giving others the benefit of the doubt, and psychological safety relates to whether others will give you the benefit of the doubt when, for instance, you have asked for help or admitted a mistake.”

Extroversion

Psychological safety at work is not about building a team of loud-and-proud extroverts. It’s about building a culture where everyone – including softer-spoken, more introverted people – feels welcome to contribute.

Lowered performance standards

This hits at one of the biggest fears and greatest misconceptions about psychological safety – that creating a “safe” environment means that you can’t have high standards or hold people accountable. 

Remember, psychologically safe environments aren’t places where everyone is nice and agreeable; they’re places where you can challenge and learn. In fact, in Edmonson’s original research on teams, she found that those with the highest levels of psychological safety ended up with the lowest amount of errors.

Why should I care?

One of the biggest boons to psychological safety came from a study done by Google, published in the New York Times Magazine 2016. Google ran a five-year study that investigated what made the best teams. They looked at things like education, gender balance, and socializing outside of work, but it wasn’t until they started looking at team norms and interactions and “encountered the concept of psychological safety in academic papers” that they found the missing ingredient. They concluded, “Psychological safety was far and away the most important of the five dynamics we found.” 

Psychologically safe cultures improve team performance in almost all aspects – dealing with geographically diverse teams, handling conflict productively, and getting the benefits of diverse teams. You have better engagement, where people feel more able to offer their talents to the common goal, and (critically) teams with a stronger ability to learn from mistakes and failures.

How do we bring it to our company?

Reframe it

As a leader, one of the most important things to do when setting up a psychologically safe environment is to reframe the idea of failure. 

  • When work is complex and uncertain, and people have to act with limited information, encourage them to see it as a learning opportunity. 
  • Help people see mistakes not as evidence of incompetence but as a signal that the situation is challenging. People shouldn’t be afraid to admit their mistakes; they are an opportunity for the whole team to observe and apply new information.

Invite it

Leaders need to lead by doing – so you should be the first to share with your teams when you don’t know something, when you don’t have an answer, and when you’ve experienced a failure. 

Ask questions, and increase opportunities for communication and collaboration across your team – the more we practice talking to each other and sharing information, the more comfortable we are doing it, and the more likely we are to have a psychologically safe work environment.

Respond productively

Respond well as a leader to openness from your team. Now, remember that psychological safety at work is not the same as lowering standards, so this does not mean that productive responses are always a cheering section. Instead, you should help your team understand the difference between “intelligent” failures (where we made a decision in a complex environment, in a challenging situation, and the result was not successful), and “blameworthy” failures (where things are a result of inattention or a violation of procedure). 

From here, you can address things appropriately and improve as an organization. But if you continue to react to every failure like it was preventable, avoidable, or blameworthy, these failures won’t stop happening. It just means people won’t tell you about them.

What now?

Hopefully, by now, we’ve convinced you that a psychologically safe environment is not only necessary for an individual to thrive, but it’s critical for an organization to operate at a high level of effectiveness and excellence. 

If you’re ready to start but aren’t sure what to do, book a consultation with One TEAM and let us partner with you to get big sh*t done while your people thrive.

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