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Psychological safety at work

Psychological safety at work Content

As a leader of people, one of your goals is no doubt to create a workplace where colleagues feel valued and engaged. After all, we all know the benefits of this: greater productivity, improved retention, a more targeted recruitment process… the list is endless.

Well, here’s some news. If you’re not fostering a culture of psychological safety at work, you’re going to fail at these goals – every time.

What’s psychological safety?

Good question. The term ‘psychological safety’ was first coined in the 1950s, but its relevance to the workplace was discovered later by Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School.

Edmondson was conducting research into culture and productivity and was studying teams of healthcare workers. She specifically wanted to see if teams that worked well together and made fewer mistakes had better outcomes for patients.

But her results were unexpected. Instead of finding that the teams with the best outcomes made fewer mistakes, her study revealed the opposite: the most productive and successful teams actually made more errors.

At first Edmondson couldn’t understand this. How could more mistakes lead to better outcomes? But when she delved deeper into the research, she realised what was going on.

It wasn’t that making errors somehow made the teams more effective – far from it. The answer had more to do with the process of failing. In other words, when the workers operated in an environment where they were encouraged to admit their mistakes, productivity and success skyrocketed.

The most successful employees were the ones who felt safe enough to fail.

Edmondson describes psychological safety like this:

“The belief that you won't be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”

At work, this means developing a culture where no one will be embarrassed, rejected or punished for taking risks, asking for clarification, requesting feedback or sharing ideas (however bad).

The benefits of this are huge. For a start, teams that feel psychologically safe with each other are more productive, because they feel free to share ideas, disagree, give challenging feedback and express different ways of thinking.

It’s also great for diversity and inclusion, as employees feel they can be themselves and are valued for their outlook on the world, wherever that comes from.

But the real benefits for recruitment and retention come in the form of employee engagement. Employees who experience a high level of psychological safety are more likely to feel like a valued part of their team, see the importance of their work and feel accepted for who they are and the unique strengths they bring – even if they get it wrong.

If you want to improve the culture of your organisation, improving psychological safety is a good place to start.

So how easy it is to create a psychologically safe environment for our employees? Here are five ways you can start.

…Treat your employees as individuals

Everyone has a natural tendency to think and behave in a certain way that is unique to them. When you recognise how this differs from one member of your team to another, you can discover the best way to create a psychologically safe place for them to share their viewpoints.

But you’ll also need to understand your own reactions. Leaders who build their own self-awareness are better able to modify their emotional responses to ideas and mistakes, inviting their employees to offer ideas and have open discussion.

There are lots of ways to have greater understanding of yourself and your team, like personality profiling tools like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. When you know who your colleagues are and a little bit about how they think, you’re more likely to have an open workplace where ideas are welcome.

…Ask for feedback in different ways

While some people might be comfortable speaking up in a meeting and sharing their ideas or dissent, being vocal about opinions is not everyone’s cup of tea.

Others might prefer to share their feedback one to one, write it in an email or take a bit of time to think through their reaction. Create different channels for ideas and feedback and remember that not everyone’s brave enough to take the floor.

…Treat all ideas equally

Once you’ve got the feedback and ideas of your employees, manage your reactions. If you really want people’s opinions you have to give them equal respect, so withhold judgement until everything’s been explored. Brainstorming with open discussion allows everyone to share ideas equally without fear of humiliation or dismissiveness.

Likewise with questions. Psychological safety means allowing everyone to ask for clarification, seek answers and speak up if there’s something they don’t understand. Many preventable mistakes have come from employees feeling unable to sense-check at the time.

…Keep your word

The foundation of psychological safety is trust, so think about what you say and the expectations you set. If you say you’ll get back to someone make sure you do, and commit to a culture where honesty is valued. You’ll also need to admit when you’re wrong – and use this opportunity to show your team members that failure’s not a problem in your organisation.

…Treat failures as learnings

Facebook (now Meta) has a mantra that is often quoted to illustrate its commitment to psychological safety:

“Fail harder”

It means that employees are not only expected to fail, but are positively encouraged to. Why? Because failing hard means that you’ve tried hard. It means you’ve put everything into an idea and pushed it to its limits. In a creative, disruptive or pioneering industry, this is vital if you want the best results. It also creates an environment of psychological safety for employees – which lets you get the most out of your staff.

As a leader, you’re responsible for the culture of your organisation. When you create a place of psychological safety, you invite everyone to be a valued and respected member of your team. That makes them more likely to stick around, less likely to disengage from their company and their work and creates bigger advocates for the people you want to hire.

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