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5 Tips for Establishing Psychological Safety at Work

March 29, 2021
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How much an organization can accomplish depends on how effective its teams are. It takes collaboration and innovation for teams to achieve business goals, but building an effective team is about more than just work. The best teams can also navigate interpersonal challenges. 

In 2015, Google conducted a study to figure out what makes teams effective at their company. 

Their research identified an important dimension of teamwork known as psychological safety. Considered the top factor in driving high-performing teams, psychological safety is quickly becoming a priority for businesses.

What Is Psychological Safety?

So, what is psychological safety in the workplace? Coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, psychological safety refers to the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. To put it simply, employees feel psychologically safe when they can interact with their coworkers without censoring themselves.

There are a few reasons why businesses need to foster psychological safety for their employees:

  • It builds trust between employees, teams, and leadership
  • It encourages employees to share ideas and take risks
  • It creates a safe environment for employees to be honest
  • It motivates employees to be more productive, engaged, and confident
  • It has a positive impact on employee retention
  • It can lead to business breakthroughs 

How to Establish Psychological Safety

Nurturing psychological safety is all about giving employees the freedom to express themselves and the support they need to innovate. Here are some tips for how companies can cultivate healthy team dynamics and psychological safety at their workplaces:

1. Be inclusive in decision-making.

The best businesses are interested in what their employees have to say, even if it means challenging the status quo. To create an atmosphere of psychological safety, companies should establish safe venues for employees to share their input. Team leaders should also make a point to explain the reasoning and thought process behind business decisions and give employees who contribute to progress due credit. 

According to Ewelina Melon, Head of People and Culture at Tidio Chatbot, “We always have a round-table before we end every meeting. In this round-table, each employee has the chance to voice their opinions and suggestions about the things we’ve tackled in the meeting. We also include our employees in the decision-making process by conducting a brainstorming session to see all points of view on our business and plans.”

Companies should also encourage employees of all levels to stay mindful and present in meetings by putting away cell phones or refraining from checking emails during conversations. Meetings that are interactive and engaging are much more likely to yield productive results.

2. Be transparent.

Hidden information can hinder productivity and create friction in the workplace. Businesses can prevent this by practicing transparency when it comes to goals and mistakes, even if it means confronting vulnerabilities.

"It’s never easy to deal with weak spots in your organization, but acknowledging them is certainly a strength. Mistakes can be a valuable learning experience, and that’s the approach you need to take to create a safe and supportive working environment," said James Lloyd-Townshend, CEO at Nigel Frank International.

Model and reinforce psychological safety by training managers to avoid placing blame on individuals for mistakes. Instead, teach them to focus on solutions and lessons-learned. Making mistakes is part of the growing process, and employees should feel safe sharing their errors or misunderstandings. This practice can also help prevent small mistakes from becoming larger, potentially costly ones down the road.

3. Accommodate preferences.

The pandemic has ushered in a new wave of remote and hybrid workforces –– and with it, a new range of personal working habits and preferences. Having an entire workforce in the same location (let alone time zone) is becoming less common, which means that companies need to set new norms for accommodating employees’ different lifestyles.

“Our managers and their employees' cooperation is based on trust, not on micromanagement — we offer remote work and flexible working hours,” Melon said.

Adapting to individual working styles isn’t a new concept. Working parents and caregivers often need to work unique hours and should be supported to do so. Employees enrolled in school may require time off to work on assignments or attend classes. Early-career hires may be more receptive to mentoring than more seasoned employees.

As the world of work resets, encourage employees to be open about their personal work styles and preferences. How do team members prefer to receive feedback? Do certain employees prefer a hands-off management style? Consider asking employees to share their preferred communication methods and using this knowledge to create a team-wide communication guideline.

4. Develop a feedback culture.

Constructive feedback is the foundation for growth in any organization. Without it, employees are at risk of feeling unsupported or unrecognized, which is ultimately detrimental to your teams’ morale.

According to Lloyd-Townshend, "Ensuring that employees have an environment where they can bring their true selves to work and have a safe space to share feedback on what you’re getting wrong is a critical part of building a great culture. Having a culture where this sort of communication is handled as a positive, rather than a negative, will make sure you’re on the right track.” 

Feedback is necessary for employee development, but it can also be challenging. In a psychologically safe environment, healthy feedback is ingrained within the company culture and enforced in company processes. Many organizations opt to use a platform like Lattice, helping teams share feedback consistently and constructively.

5. Don’t make it all about work.

Humans have a basic need to connect with others. Employees want to be recognized for who they are, including their unique and defining characteristics. Acknowledging that employees are more than members of your workforce is crucial to making them feel psychologically safe. There are many ways businesses can do this, but they all involve advocating for employees’ mental health.

“Our world is crazy right now. Not only do people have work stress, but they have personal stress. When you combine the two, you can get extremely toxic and unhealthy issues that affect the entire workplace,” said Nicole Anderson, CEO of HR consultancy MEND. “Establishing an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), training leaders on how to identify mental health declines in employees, and fostering an open conversation about mental health are extremely important.” 

Teams shouldn’t feel like they have to limit conversations to work-related topics. Employees spend most of their day interacting with each other, so it makes sense that they’d want to humanize their time together by discussing interests, celebrating occasions, or sharing personal stories. At the same time, it’s important to help employees maintain a healthy work-life balance by respecting working hours and not sending off-hours requests or communications.

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Psychological safety is crucial for building trust and understanding within teams. When employees feel safe and supported by their peers and leaders, they’re more likely to be motivated, confident, and productive. Businesses who want to unleash the full potential of their employees should prioritize creating a psychologically safe environment that teams can thrive in.