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Psychological Safety at Work - Why It Matters and How To Get It Right

Psychological Safety at Work - Why It Matters and How To Get It Right

Haelee Reis
Haelee Reis
Head of Marketing and Program
Haelee Reis
August 24, 2023

When it comes to boosting team performance, we usually think of goal-setting, company culture, and communication first. Psychological safety at work rarely gets a look in. If it’s considered at all, the impact is often underestimated. However, without psychological safety, all the other ingredients in your performance-boosting recipe will not work harmoniously. It’s like trying to make bread without yeast. 

Psychological safety is the feeling of being able to speak up, make mistakes and contribute ideas without fearing negative consequences. In a team environment, there’s a collective understanding that workers can contribute without being rejected, humiliated, or criticized.

Here at PepTalk, we strongly believe in psychological safety and its impact on team performance. This article explains its importance to employee satisfaction. And we provide tips and advice on achieving it for your business.

Let’s get started with a definition.

What is psychological safety at work?

Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson is credited with coining the term. She describes psychological safety at work as a shared belief that “one can speak up without risk of punishment or humiliation.” And it’s fundamental to a healthy workplace where employees feel engaged, valued, and motivated.

It’s not rocket science. Without psychological safety, creative ideas go unsaid. Innovative problem-solving is quashed, and team members struggle to collaborate effectively. It affects every aspect of your business operations, from productivity to retention and, ultimately, the bottom line.

Psychologically safe workplaces are different. Workers feel comfortable sharing their insights, taking risks, or making mistakes. Team members have each other's backs, and there's high trust and mutual respect.

Psychological safety is sometimes confused with psychological health. So, let’s clear up any misunderstanding. Psychological health is all about the individual’s state of mental wellbeing. By contrast, psychological safety is concerned with the context of how people interact with each other.

Let’s break down why creating psychological safety at work is so crucial.

Employees feeling psychologically safe during a work meeting

Why psychological safety matters at work

  • Encourages a sense of belonging
  • Powers up employee engagement
  • Supports inclusivity
  • Promotes creativity and innovation
  • Impacts retention efforts
  • Boosts team performance

Let’s take a deep dive into each factor. 

Encourages a sense of belonging

All employees want to feel a sense of belonging at work. It’s a fundamental human need. And it’s also good for business. Research from Deloitte shows that workers who feel part of a group have a 56% improvement in job performance.

Power up employee engagement

It’s much easier for your people to be engaged when they feel safe at work. Respected and valued, they are ready to give their best. And rather than clockwatching, they are problem-solving, innovating, and collaborating with colleagues.

Supports inclusivity

Safe workplaces ensure everyone is included, regardless of gender, race, disability, or religion. Team members are empowered to flourish and feel connected to the organization and each other.

Promotes creativity and innovation

When employees feel safe expressing themselves, new ideas and innovations are free to flow. Instead of staying quiet for fear of ridicule, workers can unleash their creative energies.

Impacts retention efforts

Employee turnover continues to be a major headache for organizations worldwide. And according to one study, changing the dial on psychological safety results in a 27% reduction in turnover. And it makes sense. Appreciated, respected, and engaged employees have less incentive to move.  

Boosts team performance

Feeling safe at work powers up team performance. There’s a culture of continuous improvement where creativity, innovation, and experimentation blossom. Employees are willing to take risks and are more adaptable to changing situations. These conditions create an uptick in all-round performance.

Steps to create psychological safety at work

6 Steps to create psychological safety at work

  1. Communication 
  2. Facilitating feedback
  3. Listening to team members
  4. Make yourself available to your team
  5. Be open to improvement as a leader and as an organization
  6. Earn trust and extend it throughout the team

Developing psychological safety at work can feel like a tall order. However, as with most projects, it becomes a whole lot more manageable once you break it up into bite-sized chunks. Here are 6 steps to help you. And if you can't tackle them all at once, start with one. You may be surprised by how even one change can have a significant ripple effect on your people.

1. Communication

Every leader knows that transparent communication is the foundation of high-performing teams. Make it clear how much you value psychological safety at work, and discuss what it means in your team. Agree on an acceptable team vocabulary. For example, replace the word 'failure' with its negative associations with the more upbeat 'learning opportunity.’

Next, develop a set of norms for team interactions, such as being respectful, encouraging contributions, and avoiding a blame culture. And have a conflict resolution process in place. Challenging the status quo is a positive. However, open conflict is destructive, so be firm about handling potential disputes.

2. Facilitating feedback

Give employees a voice. Use 1:1 meetings, employee catchups, and team huddles to harvest feedback. Show curiosity and value honest views. You want team members to feel confident and comfortable about sharing their ideas, and that starts at the top. And it also involves being open and receptive to views that may challenge your own thinking.

{{ Learn more with our One-on-One Employee Feedback eBook here }}

3. Listening to team members

Active listening is vital for effective leaders and supports psychological safety at work. Practice active listening to ensure workers feel valued and respected. Switch your phone off in meetings, uncross your arms, and encourage people to share more by asking questions. Leading by example sets the behaviors and expectations for the team to follow.

4. Make yourself available to the team

Keeping the metaphorical door open is crucial to helping the team feel psychologically safe. Of course, it doesn’t mean you’re on call 24/7. Instead, team members know when you're available and the best way to reach you, whether mobile, email, or instant message. Schedule regular catch ups with direct reports. And only postpone if really necessary.

5. Be open to improvement as a leader and as an organization

Role model the growth mindset you expect in others. This involves acknowledging your mistakes and professional development needs. Focus on team members’ career development goals, and make sure you praise them for their efforts, not just results.

An openness to improvement also means demonstrating a willingness to learn from others. Just because you’re the leader doesn’t mean you have all the answers. There’s always room for improvement as an individual and an organization.

6. Earn trust and extend it throughout the team

Building trust takes time and effort. However, it’s fundamental to psychological safety at work. People feel vulnerable when they don't trust you as the leader or their coworkers. Innovation, brainstorming, and problem-solving are stifled as team members withdraw. 

Here are some tips to help you build and extend trust:

  • Be transparent and fair
  • Always keep your promises
  • Avoid micromanaging and focus instead on outputs
  • Be inclusive and supportive
  • Use persuasive communication

When communication takes place through a screen, managers must work harder to build trust. However, sometimes people feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts in an instant message than in person, so have a range of available channels.  

Tips for leaders on how to sustain psychological safety at work

Tips for leaders on how to sustain psychological safety at work

Building a culture of psychological safety at work is one thing. Sustaining it is another. Remember, it’s not a one-off exercise. You need to monitor and review to ensure you stay on track regularly. Our final selection of tips will help you sustain psychological safety at work. And as a bonus, these tips will also support your efforts to be an all-round effective leader.

Use technology:

There are a ton of tools out there to support transparent communication and collaboration. Video conferencing, instant messaging platforms, and collaboration tools offer seamless real-time communication. And they connect workers, whatever their location.

Check-in regularly:

Use your 1:1 meetings to gather feedback from employees. Spend equal time with all workers, including remote ones who may otherwise feel sidelined.

Employee surveys and pulse checks help you gauge overall wellbeing and satisfaction. Do these regularly, and you can deal with any issues before they snowball. Make them anonymous, and you’re more likely to get honest, frank feedback.

Keep everyone on the same page:

Save big announcements for team meetings. Otherwise, individual employees may feel threatened and lose trust in your leadership.

Offer wellbeing and mental health support:

Be sure to offer resources and information to promote psychological safety at work. Mindfulness exercises, stress management techniques, and access to mental health support services demonstrate your commitment to a psychologically safe workplace.

Create psychological safety at work a priority with PepTalk

If you are serious about creating psychological safety at work, the PepTalk Team Experience™ platform is a fantastic place to start. Features such as Team Check-In and Team Talks ensure your team members connect and trust each other. And it makes it easier for you to create the psychologically safe environment your team needs to thrive. Find out more with a free demo.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is psychological safety and why is it important at work?

Psychological safety refers to an environment where employees feel comfortable taking risks, making mistakes, and expressing their opinions without fear of punishment or humiliation. It's crucial for building innovation, collaboration, and overall team performance.

How can leaders promote psychological safety in their teams?

Leaders can promote psychological safety by encouraging open communication, showing empathy, acknowledging mistakes, and creating an inclusive environment where all voices are valued.

What are the benefits of having a psychologically safe workplace?

A psychologically safe workplace boosts employee engagement, productivity, creativity, and reduces turnover rates. It also creates a culture of trust and collaboration.

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