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Psychological Safety in the Workplace




One of the hottest terms in the workplace conversation today is psychological safety. But what exactly does it entail? Let’s break it down.

  • Psychological safety is when employees feel welcome to share their ideas without fear of being ridiculed or facing professional sanctions.
  • It empowers individuals to ask questions, admit mistakes, or voice concerns without fear of negative repercussions.
  • Signs of psychological safety include hearing different voices, conversations happening regardless of job title, and responding to dissenting opinions without becoming aggressive. Low psychological safety is evident when team members become quieter over time, morale is consistently low, and leaders typically dominate conversations.

Creating psychological safety is not just a buzzword - it is a necessity in today’s workplace. As defined by Harvard Business School professor Dr. Amy Edmondson, psychological safety is “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes – and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” It sounds good, so why aren’t we all doing it? Well, easier said than done. Hierarchies, common in business, can be a barrier. It takes time and deliberate effort to create a workplace culture where people feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas, regardless of their job title or status within the organization.

You may have been there yourself – working on a team in which you felt you had to walk on eggshells to avoid saying the wrong thing or ruffling feathers. Not exactly an environment that sparks creativity and risk-taking! When employees feel safe to share their thoughts and ideas, they are more likely to feel invested in their work and have a greater sense of ownership over their tasks. This can lead to increased engagement, collaboration, and creativity.

To cultivate psychological safety, leaders should model the behavior they want to see in their team members, empower them to take on leadership roles, and celebrate successes while encouraging learning from mistakes and failures.

Psychological safety can help to prevent issues such as groupthink and conformity, which can hinder team performance and decision-making. By encouraging diverse perspectives and fostering an environment where employees feel comfortable sharing their ideas, teams can come up with more innovative solutions and make more informed decisions.

However, cultivating psychological safety is not always an easy task. It requires a continuous effort from leaders and team members to create a culture that values openness, transparency, and trust. Leaders must be willing to listen to feedback, address issues as they arise, and model the behavior they want to see in their team members.

Furthermore, creating psychological safety is not just the responsibility of leadership. Team members must also play an active role in fostering a culture of psychological safety by actively listening to their colleagues, acknowledging different perspectives, and being willing to take risks and share their ideas.

Some key takeaways:

Defining Psychological Safety

Psychological safety is when employees feel welcome to share their ideas without having any fear of being ridiculed or facing professional sanctions for their statements. Individuals should feel empowered to ask questions, admit mistakes, or voice concerns without fear or negative repercussions from their team. Psychological safety changes based upon the group composition in and of itself. It's not the same for every group and community.

Signs of Psychological Safety

Look out for signs of psychological safety, including how the group responds to dissenting opinions, whether leadership creates boundaries or suppresses voice, and whether conversations happen regardless of job title. Hearing from different voices – not just the loudest in the room - is another indicator of psychological safety. Signs of low psychological safety include team members not speaking up, team morale persistently low, and team members progressively becoming quieter and sharing less over time.

Barriers to Psychological Safety

Strong hierarchies can be a major barrier to psychological safety. It is important to pay attention to the places where psychological safety is strongest in the organization. Is it only at the C-suite level or the entire organization?

Unconscious biases also impact psychological safety, especially if the organization allows them to develop into microaggressions or even outright discrimination. In these cases, employees often feel forced into defensive positions where they are tensed for the next incident, rather than being welcomed in a way that fosters creativity and innovation.

Best Practices for Cultivating Psychological Safety

  • Create norms of behavior for groups, beginning with the top.
  • Leaders should model the behavior they want to see in their team members.
  • Empower your team members to take on a leadership role, and don’t always expect the leader to have the solution.
  • Encourage learning from mistakes and failures, and celebrate successes.
  • Use diverse teams to create an inclusive environment that fosters psychological safety.
  • Provide opportunities for training and skill-building around diversity, equity, and inclusion.
  • Mitigate the impact of unconscious bias across the workplace.
  • Be open to feedback from employees and create a safe space for employees to share their experiences.
  • Address and acknowledge when mistakes are made and what can be learned from them.
  • Foster an environment where it’s okay to ask questions and learn from others.
  • Understand that psychological safety is a journey, not a destination, and it requires continuous effort and commitment from leadership.

It's up to leaders and organizations to take the necessary steps to create a culture that fosters psychological safety, including addressing barriers, providing training and resources, and modeling the behavior they want to see in their team members. By doing so, they can create a workplace that encourages innovation, creativity, and ultimately leads to better outcomes for everyone involved.

If you are interested in learning more about BiasSync, we encourage you to contact our team. For more information on conscious inclusion in the workplace, we encourage you to watch the webinar.

Updated: 07/2023

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