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Psychological Safety at Work

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Imagine this scenario. Your company launched A/B testing on a new product line and has decided to move forward with a plan. Being the analytical thinker, you noticed something wrong with the data just before its public debut. Do you arrange a Zoom meeting with your manager ASAP to point out the problems, or do you keep your mouth shut to avoid the inevitable firestorm that will kill the messenger? 

That’s an example of the dichotomy of psychological safety at work.

The former outcome defines a psychologically safe workplace. You know that you can speak freely without repercussions. The latter shows the potential cost of a situation where that isn’t the case. You realize that the cons of pointing out the issue far outweigh the benefits to you. Which position would you prefer between the two?

What Is Psychological Safety in the Workplace?

Psychological safety describes a state whereby you have the freedom to speak your mind. The safety part of the equation means that you have no fear of reprisal, punishment, or humiliation. Your opinion matters, something that only 30% of employees feel exists at their jobs, according to the 2021 Gallup State of the Workplace Report.

Psychological safety at work means that everyone on a team feels they belong. Trust and respect are prevalent in how everyone interacts. This freedom to voice an opinion depends on these traits. It’s not a license to sound off and air grievances with no regard to the feelings of others. The prevailing empathy ensures that doesn’t happen. As we speak, so do we understand the impact of our words on others.

Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson states psychological safety challenges managers that they must do more to create this atmosphere in today’s workplace. They must take charge and lead by example. Employees want empathy from their employers, particularly in light of the challenges of the pandemic. Yet only 25% feel it exists at their jobs. Achieving this goal isn’t a one-time deal. It’s a journey.

The Four Stages of Psychological Safety (This Is How to Measure It.)

People share many of the exact needs, a concept detailed by Maslow’s hierarchy. After realizing their basic survival needs, individuals want to fulfill their social and self-esteem requirements to achieve the ultimate goal of self-actualization. Sadly, according to Gallup, only 40% of employees feel they have this opportunity at their jobs.

Perhaps one of the best lessons that the pandemic taught all of us is to reassess our lives to find meaning and work-life balance. Fostering a state of psychological safety is the roadmap. The path toward psychological safety at work provides a means for reaching this state of mind through a series of steps. 

Each one builds upon the previous one to create a solid foundation that supports growth and development. Individuals become empowered along the way to reach self-actualization in the workplace. The milestones include:

  • Stage 1–Inclusion Safety: Feeling a part of a group that nurtures a sense of belonging and acceptance
  • Stage 2–Learner Safety: Feeling free to gain knowledge and experience, regardless of the inevitable stumbling and mistakes along the way
  • Stage 3–Contributor Safety: Knowing one can engage and contribute to the discussion, secure that their thoughts and ideas are welcome
  • Stage 4–Challenger Safety: Confident to speak your truth, empowered to question and challenge the status quo.

Underlying this progression is the building of trust and understanding. The employee and employer learn to count on each other. Every team member can put down their guard and join the discussion. The attainment of psychological safety at work is a reality.

It’s only when the fear of being ridiculed, or worse yet, ostracized, is expelled that leaders hope to unleash the creativity within their staff, waiting for the moment to shine.

Why Is Psychological Safety Important? 

Better employee morale is an evident outcome when psychological safety exists. However, the benefits are far-reaching for staff and management alike. It can even impact the stability and financial health of a company. Other opportunities include:

  • Improved worker engagement
  • Better performance and productivity
  • Reduced attrition
  • Better employee well-being

How to Find Out If Your Workplace Is Psychologically Safe

Self-awareness is a challenging and eye-opening experience. Too often, leaders take reactive actions instead of proactive ones. The cascading effects of a workplace that is not psychologically safe provide the wake-up call. Therefore, it behooves management to recognize the shots over the bow to right the ship before the inevitable consequences.

Signs of an Unsafe Environment

The level of employee engagement is an excellent barometer for measuring psychological safety in teams. Actively disengaged workers are more likely to be less productive, call in sick, and look for another position. Other more serious red flags are poor employee morale, harassment, conflict, and antagonistic behavior.

The Fearless Organization Scan 

The Fearless Organization Scan is a tool that organizations can use to assess the psychological health of their workplaces. It builds on the work of Amy Edmondson to quantify the current safety level using a simple survey to measure your team’s effectiveness. Armed with this information, leaders can learn where they need to make changes to establish their fearless organization.

Steps for Creating a Psychologically Safe Workplace

Forging a psychologically safe workplace begins with the knowledge that can point you in the right direction for your team. It also involves finding out where your organization currently stands to gauge its health. Some managers may find this process startling yet enlightening. Leaders must realize that asking question may not always yield the answer they want to hear. Yet, it’s imperative for change.

Step One: Observation

The process begins with observation and active listening. Paying attention to both the explicit and implicit messages your team is trying to communicate is vital to understanding where everything stands. Too often, management gets entangled with their curse of knowledge, remaining out of touch with the boots on the ground. It’s essential to shed any preconceived notions about what you may learn. Information gathering doesn’t involve shifting. That’s what makes employee opinion surveys so valuable.

Step Two: Discussion

The foundation of the psychological safety definition relies on an open discussion without fear of reprisal. That means harnessing the skills of the servant leader to be empathetic to the needs of their staff. Unfortunately, 68% of CEOs fear taking this vital step. However, it’s only through compassion and open-mindedness that leaders can begin the healing and rebuilding process.

 

Step Three: Taking Ownership

It’s vital to frame your goal of psychological safety at work as a team effort. Every staff member has a stake in the outcome and its rewards. It’s not a failure to admit you’re traveling in uncharted waters. It’s also not wrong to disclose that fact to your employees. You’ll likely find that they will respect you more for it.

Step Four: Lead by Example 

Undoubtedly, some team members will be reluctant to open up about what they really think—once bitten, twice shy, as they say. That’s where managers must take the bold step and start the discussion by leading by example. Share examples of your vulnerability with your staff. Managers often demand explanations from their employees without reciprocating in kind. Start the ball rolling with you.

Step Five: Share Examples of Transparency With Employees

Employees—and consumers—need transparency to build trust. It is the glue that holds a team together. Every successful psychological safety example begins here. Bear in mind that the lack of transparency comes at a price if exposed later. Think of it as an opportunity to walk the talk. By being candid with your staff, you open the door for their honesty.

Step Six: Hold Yourself and Others Accountable

It’s crucial to hold yourself to the same accountability as you expect from your staff. However, it’s necessary to reexamine failure. While it may have costs, it also provides opportunities to learn from one’s mistakes. That makes it essential for an open dialogue. Putting the matter to the team can improve everyone’s problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

Establishing Safety Teams in Your Workplace

Safety teams ensure that matters stay on track by maintaining the free flow of conversation. They give the employees a forum for discussion and feedback. The principles of contributor and challenger safety apply. These teams ensure that there isn’t a question not asked or grievance not aired.

Leadership Tips for Psychological Safety

Building a psychologically safe workplace involves thinking outside of the box. Management styles of the past are woefully out of touch with today’s workforce. The pandemic saw to it with the evolution of the hybrid and work-from-home (WOH) employees. Organizations have much to gain by meeting this goal.

Embrace Conflict.

Part of the process involves changing your mindset about conflict. Remember that it’s the embodiment of the fourth stage of psychological safety, challenger safety. Having a different perspective about an issue isn’t inherently wrong. It can expose shortcomings and open up a pathway toward positive change.

Allow People to Speak Up (and Encourage It).

Everyone wants to be heard. The wise leader will provide a forum for their team members to speak freely. It’s often through open discussion that innovations and ideas spring forth. It also reinforces trust and respect for building healthy work relationships.

Change How Failure Is Perceived.

Failure implies that the road forward is closed. However, forging a culture of psychological safety means it is a change of direction. Many paths lead to success. If one way didn’t work, the group's collective thinking could discuss the next move or a better way of doing a task.

 

Make Psychological Safety a Priority.

Words mean nothing without action. That’s why it’s imperative to make psychological safety a priority. A leader mustn’t forget to lead by example. It’s a work in progress that requires diligence and accountability. Psychological safety is every employee’s responsibility.

Signs (Examples) Showing Psychological Safety in Your Workplace

Having an open-door policy is an excellent way to create a psychologically safe workplace. It proves to your employees that they can discuss and challenge the status quo. They can air grievances that can avoid resentment. Employee morale and engagement are at stake without this open dialogue.

Likewise, meetings that encourage team contributions give staff members the confidence they need to speak up and toss around ideas. It fosters inclusiveness. According to research by Deloitte, employees in these workplace environments are six times more likely to lead the way toward innovation in their industry. 

Psychological Safety in Virtual Teams vs. Physical Teams

It’s fair to say that the workplace will never be the same post-pandemic. That presents new challenges for leaders who must ask, what is psychological safety today? How will the hybrid and WOH workforce affect their team members?

Harder to Spot in Virtual Teams

While working remotely was a necessity, 41% aren’t comfortable with returning to the office again. The hybrid workforce is the new normal. However, it presents some formidable communication barriers. Zoom meetings can’t compete with working with people face to face every day. That makes creating psychological safety difficult without the snippets of conversation during the day and non-verbal cues. 

Silence in Both Is a Problem

Silence can further undermine the positive progress an organization has made. Remember that leaders must nurture psychological safety. Therefore, managers must reach out to all workers, WOH, and in-office. Weekly check-ins with remote staff can reinforce the bonds that keep communication open. WOH team members must understand their responsibility to do their part and stay in touch.

 

Conclusion

The pandemic taught all of us valuable lessons. We learned how vital communication is for our mental health and well-being. We’ve also realized the importance of psychological safety at work. Organizations and their staff have gained much from leaders embracing its concepts and creating these healthy environments. 

The outcomes are far-reaching. Workers have a pathway toward self-actualization that can help them professionally and personally. Companies can improve employee engagement and reduce turnover. Psychological safety allows all staff members to test the waters of interpersonal risk-taking without fear. It opens the door to creativity and innovation.

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