Getting started with a psychologically safe workplace

by Molly Johnston | Jan 16, 2023

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In any workplace, psychological safety often goes hand in hand with company culture. If your company culture is up-to-scratch, research shows it could boost productivity by 56% and reduce employee turnover by 50%.

Yet, a huge number of companies aren’t recognising the importance of incorporating psychological safety into their company culture action plan.

To ensure your teams stay productive, motivated, and inspired to perform, building psychological safety at work is essential. Not only is it a basic human need, but it will also keep your employees retained.

It can be challenging to know where to start, so we’ve designed a plan of action for you to effectively create and implement a psychologically safe workplace at your organisation.

Understanding psychological safety

In short, psychological safety is the feeling and belief that you can freely share your thoughts, opinions, and ideas without fear of being degraded or shamed.

Put yourself in your employee’s shoes. Imagine you’re at work and you’ve come up with a brilliant idea for a new project. But you’re worried that if you suggest it to your boss, they might think it’s a silly idea and ridicule you in front of your colleagues. Or, maybe you’ve got a question about a task you’ve been assigned, but you’re afraid to ask because you’re worried you’ll be seen as inadequate.

You wouldn’t worry about those things in a psychologically safe workplace. You’d feel comfortable sharing your ideas and asking questions, knowing that your colleagues and leaders will listen and respect your contributions.

This type of environment is crucial for high-performing teams because it allows them to fully engage with their work, promoting collaboration, creativity, and job satisfaction as a result. To create a psychologically safe workplace, employers must create an atmosphere of trust and respect.

Why it’s important to maintain psychological safety at work

Recent research shows that teams with high degrees of psychological safety reported increased levels of performance and decreased levels of interpersonal conflict.

The study also revealed that not all team members shared the same perceptions regarding psychologically safe work environments. This means that some innovative ideas may be left unsaid, clever approaches to problem-solving are limited, and team performance is left damaged as colleagues fail to collaborate.

The lack of team psychological safety at work can heavily impact an organisation’s bottom line in the same way a negative company culture does. A psychologically safe work environment encourages team members to unlock their unique and innovative contributions, ultimately leading to business success.

Research has consistently discovered companies in all industries that encourage diversity of thought are far more advantageous compared to those that don’t. In fact, diverse teams with a plethora of different backgrounds are more likely to find solutions to problems, or suggest creative ideas to maintain positive business outcomes purely based on the vast amount of collective experience they have under their belts.

But if these employees don’t feel like speaking up, their ideas become wasted. And your opportunity to learn from those ideas becomes squandered, too. What’s worse is that plenty of people currently feel like this about their roles, with just 3 out of 10 employees strongly agreeing that their opinions matter at work.

Unfortunately, those in marginalised social groups are often impacted most. 

Staff members who believe they work in a psychologically safe environment are much more likely to engage in interpersonal risk-taking behaviour that actively promotes a supportive and inclusive culture leading to better business outcomes. 

These behaviours include:

  • Speaking their mind
  • Raising unspoken concerns
  • Asking important questions
  • Sharing constructive feedback

When companies fail to create psychological safety at work, staff become uncomfortable speaking up about things they should be able to. It also means that company progress is halted, as you’re not exposed to the type of constructive feedback to help you prevent failure. 

Your people are your greatest assets, so it’s essential to learn what is and what’s not working straight from an inside source.

5 steps to help create psychological safety at work

Here are our top tips for team leaders wanting to build psychological safety at work.

1. Encourage team members to become involved in decision-making

When making big business decisions, consult your team. It’s important to make sure you involve them in that process.

Ask for their opinions, thoughts on the topic, and constructive feedback. This way, they a) feel listened to, respected, and important enough to help guide business decisions and b) help you build and measure psychological safety in your teams.

Whether you choose to take your employees’ advice or not, make sure you explain to them why you came to the decision you did. Even if they don’t agree with the path you took, they’ll appreciate your honesty.

Our top tip: Involve your workers and be transparent every step of the way.

teams coming together to work on goals collectively

2. Be open to feedback

At the end of the day, it’s your responsibility to oversee business decisions at your organisation. Your team needs to know that you’re confident in taking it on, but also that you’re not opposed to hearing their opinion on how things could potentially be improved.

Receptivity to feedback can go a long way to retaining valuable team members. When your team’s psychological safety is intact, they feel able to raise concerns and share feedback on how things could be different – no matter how senior the team leader may be. 

3. Establish norms for failure (aka learning opportunities)

Avoid punishing your staff for experimenting and trying new things. When it’s reasonable risk-taking, try to understand their thought process, rather than tearing it down. Show your workers that mistakes are almost always perfect opportunities for growth.

If you can relate to any of the mistakes your staff have made, try to share your own hard-won lessons and what you did differently the next time. This will help encourage team members to embrace innovation, rather than try to suppress it.

4. Create space for new ideas and goals (especially ambitious ones!)

As a leader, you must establish if you want solely through-through, tried-and-tested ideas and goals with measurable results, or if you’re open to more creative, wild, and ambitious suggestions that may not have been tried yet. 

You may be unsure of the latter, but make sure you never shut anything down and provide your employees with support. You never know, one of those big ideas could change your company for the better.

5. Embrace productive, healthy conflict

Healthy conflict is essential for effective teamwork. It allows employees to voice their disagreements and express alternative perspectives, which leads to a more holistic understanding of issues and better decision-making.

It’s important to remember that healthy conflict does not involve aggression or personal attacks, but rather the respectful exchange of differing opinions. By fostering a culture of open communication and valuing diverse perspectives, teams can reap the benefits of healthy conflict and improve their overall performance.

The 4 stages of developing psychological safety

Fostering psychological safety starts with your employees feeling a sense of belonging.

Dr. Timothy Clark, the author of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, identifies a path that employees must follow in order to feel comfortable contributing valuable ideas and challenging the status quo. These stages are:

Stage 1: Inclusion Safety in the workplace

Inclusion safety addresses the human desire for acceptance. It’s all about creating a positive work environment where people feel comfortable being themselves and sharing their unique perspectives.

Stage 2: Learner Safety in the workplace

The second psychological safety stage is about fostering a culture of learning and growth. In this stage, people feel comfortable asking questions, giving and receiving feedback, trying new things, and making mistakes. This is crucial because it helps create an environment where people can learn and improve over time.

Stage 3: Contributor Safety in the workplace

Contributor Safety ensures people feel comfortable using their skills and abilities to make a meaningful contribution. It’s about feeling like you can make a difference, and that your work is valued, helping people feel motivated and engaged in their work.

Stage 4: Challenger Safety in the workplace

The fourth and final stage of psychological safety is known as Challenger Safety. This stage addresses the need to improve and make things better. In this stage, people feel comfortable speaking up and challenging the status quo when they see opportunities for change or improvement.

To help employees progress through these stages and feel confident in taking interpersonal risks and speaking up, leaders should cultivate a sense of psychological safety within their team or organisation. This includes creating a trusting and respecting climate, allowing team members to collaborate freely and drive innovation.

In summary

Overall, psychological safety is essential for enabling employees to contribute their best ideas and drive innovation. By fostering a culture of open communication and valuing diverse perspectives, teams can create an environment where healthy conflict and risk-taking are encouraged and everyone feels heard and valued.

To find out more about how a psychologically safe workplace can help you to achieve a high-performing, engaged and ambitious workforce, our useful guide takes you through the 7 principles you’ll need to master to create a healthy culture, where ideas are celebrated!

Foster a culture of open communication