Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace

Everyone wants to feel safe in their job, not just physically, but also psychologically. Employees want to come to work every day feeling engaged in what they do and comfortable in sharing ideas and strategies with those with whom they work. It has been shown that companies with greater psychological safety have a greater likelihood of success and innovation because employees are more comfortable speaking up and sharing their thoughts.

Psychological safety and its impact on employee performance

Psychological safety refers to a belief that individuals can voice their concerns, ask questions, speak up or make mistakes without the risk of punishment or shame. It is an increasingly important inclusion issue that employers cannot afford to ignore. Psychological safety has shown to drive commitment, group dynamics, innovation, and decision making.

A lack of psychological safety in the workplace has far-reaching consequences. When employees are afraid to speak openly about failed efforts, the organization cannot learn how to avoid the same mistakes in the future. When employees aren’t totally dedicated, the organization misses out on the potential to fully utilize all its resources. Industries that have a strong safety culture will strive to create psychological safety as a way of supporting a culture where employees are comfortable speaking up to avoid any potential operational failure.

What role can leaders and team members play regarding psychological safety?

Leaders set the example by creating a psychologically safe place for their employees, underscoring that this truly has bottom line impact. That said, people leaders need to recognize this will take time for the culture to shift and should be willing to continue to nurture it as it does.

AJO recommends that leaders follow these five steps to help leaders understand how to start the process of creating a “safe place” for their employees:

Step 1: Encourage Employee Engagement – Engaged workers feel emotionally invested in their jobs. Leaders need to take time to invite questions, feedback, or requests for help from employees and be open to them. They must address responses without judgements, otherwise, employees may receive the message that it’s safer to remain silent and avoid the risk of being humiliated or criticized. There are real costs for companies that miss out on ideas because employees are not comfortable speaking up.

Step 2: Model Vulnerability – Inviting engagement is critical but receiving that type of engagement is impossible to achieve unless leaders are willing to show their vulnerability by being open with their teams about their own mistakes and challenges. This is not by any means a sign of weakness, but rather an opportunity to show employees they do not know everything and are willing to learn from their employees. Being vulnerable will extend trust to employees and encourage them to share their questions, concerns, or mistakes.

Step 3: Foster a Listening Environment – Effective leaders pay close attention to what their employees have to say and then act on it, but leaders must first create a space for their employees to feel safe. It’s important for leaders to ensure employees that they will not be hurt for sharing an idea or raising a concern. Leaders must listen well and with real intent. It’s important to consider what their employees are saying and to show understanding by repeating what was said. They should ask questions and then offer help freely. If help is not offered, employees may shy away from asking for help in the future even when it is badly needed.

Step 4: Express Gratitude and Appreciation – People want to be appreciated for the work they do and for what they contribute to a larger purpose. Leaders can help to encourage that behavior by showing appreciation for employees who raise questions, concerns, or ideas by thanking them. They can applaud employees willing to take a risk, especially if they are typically quieter and more reserved. Psychologically safe employees who feel their thoughts and ideas are appreciated by their leaders and co-workers will not only be more engaged but will become more productive and invested in their work.

Step 5: Forging Productive Relationships – Healthy and productive relationships can have a huge impact on the overall psychological safety within any company. Relationships are not merely a matter of compatible personalities and common interests, but rather the core of productivity and success for any team. With the expansion of remote work and hybrid work arrangements, there are added considerations with psychological safety that may require an updated and creative approach, including the following:

  • Make sure to check-in with employees regularly
  • Allocate time for employees to connect outside of work
  • Do something to help learn and grow together as a team
  • Take time for employees to share key learning moments with one another

Psychological safety is about encouraging people to be bold and unafraid. Hall-of-Fame hockey player Wayne Gretzky once said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” That does not mean every shot – or idea – will be a good one. But if employees do not feel free to share their thoughts and ideas at work, their organizations may miss out on valuable opportunities to achieve their goals and get left behind in the process.

Post by Joyce Heckman

Joyce Heckman is Vice President, Talent Development for AJO. Joyce is responsible for providing the strategic direction of the firm’s leadership development, executive coaching and consulting services. She focuses on the design and delivery of customized solutions for clients, while implementing internal processes for organizational effectiveness.