Creating Psychological Safety at Work 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many organizations took part in employee assistance programs – offering, among other things, free counseling, telehealth services and extended leave. Diversity and inclusion groups popped up at almost every major corporation, largely as a PR response to address social justice issues. Still, as necessary as these corporate-led efforts are, the safety and wellbeing of employees can still flounder without proper support from leadership. If managers and business leaders want to implement real change, they need to understand how to create psychological safety at work.

A Brief Psychological Safety Definition

In brief, psychological safety describes an environment in which employees feel empowered to bring their whole selves to work – to participate in team discussions, ask questions, raise concerns and take risks. 

Many workers are hired based on their experience and expertise, but then expected to conform in group discussions and decisions. Psychologically safe environments encourage individuals to speak up, share ideas, solve problems and make suggestions. When individuals feel heard and supported, they are more likely to feel a sense of loyalty to their team and workplace.

Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School, who did the original research on psychological safety in teams, measures this comfort at work with these seven simple questions:

  1. If I make a mistake in this team, is it held against me?
  2. Are members of this team able to bring up problems and tough issues?
  3. Do people on this team sometimes reject others for being different?
  4. Is it safe to take a risk on this team?
  5. Is it difficult to ask other members of this team for help?
  6. Would anyone on this team deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts?
  7. Are my unique skills and talents valued and utilized while working with members of this team?

The answers to these questions can serve as a benchmark for organizations looking to cultivate more psychologically safe workplaces.

What Are the Benefits of Psychological Safety?

When employees feel psychologically safe sharing ideas, raising questions, and fully participating, the results are profound. Productivity soars, turnover shrinks, and teamwork thrives. Creating an environment of psychological safety starts with business leaders but grows within teams. This culture-defining move to cultivate psychologically safe workplaces paves the way for innovation and creativity to solve the most significant problems organizations face.

Why Is Psychological Safety Important to Teams?

Notably, a landmark Google study found that psychological safety was the most critical key dynamic of effective teams. The Google researchers found that individuals on teams with greater feelings of psychological safety were less likely to leave Google. They were also more likely to embrace diverse ideas from their teammates. Finally, they brought in more revenue, and they were rated more effective by executives.

Star employees exist, but they need to work in an environment that lets them shine. Data from Gallup reveals that just three in 10 U.S. workers strongly agree that at work, their opinions seem to count. Significantly, by moving that ratio to six in 10 employees, organizations could realize a 27% reduction in turnover, a 40% reduction in safety incidents, and a 12% increase in productivity.

How to Promote Psychological Safety at Work

Psychological safety at work is an integral part of effective teams, and it doesn’t take years of team therapy to create positive change. Start with these three tips to move your organization away from head nods and silence and towards true collaboration and teamwork.

Framing/Setting the Stage

“One aspect of setting the stage is reminding people of the importance of the work they do, the purpose they serve. The other aspect, and this may be even more important, is emphasizing uncertainty and challenge,” says Edmondson. She reminds us that emotionally, most people have a mindset that limits their willingness to take risks and face failures along the way to their ultimate goal. When leaders set the stage by reminding people of the uncertainty that lies ahead, they help people feel more free to speak up with ideas from the left field. Normalizing uncertainty creates a soft landing for groups to share their thoughts.

Inviting Engagement

Discovery and learning is one of the primary goals of engagement. Asking for participation isn’t meant just to let people blow off steam, this is a time for leaders to actively listen to their teams’ needs and ideas. Ask direct questions of teammates: how they think, what they feel. Once managers create a psychologically safe climate for the team, they can place focus on individuals. The communication chain will continue to improve in one-on-one meetings and sub-committees.

Are you promoting psychological safety as a leader? Get some tips in our video featuring executive coach Phil Boissiere.

Productive Responses/Communication

“I love the phrase, ‘How can I help?’ It’s so rare, and so powerful, and so profound,” says Edmondson. A simple nod and acknowledgment can go a long way after giving someone the floor to speak. Allowing anyone on the team to ask a direct question creates a welcome place for discussion. To level the playing field of group discussions, managers can be vulnerable with employees in return – soliciting and accepting feedback, admitting to mistakes, and leading by example.

Do you know if your employees feel psychologically safe at work? Take a tour of our proven professional development platform for teams and see how it can help strengthen your team dynamics and improve performance.