Over the past few years, we’ve seen increased attention on employee well-being and mental health — and for good reason. When the pandemic hit, many of our assumptions about work-life went out the window. Suddenly, childcare and healthcare challenges were regular topics for HR and operating teams alike. Many organizations were forced to embrace remote work almost overnight, and words like “trust” and “communication” took on entirely new meanings.
This new reality also led to renewed concerns about Zoom fatigue, work-life balance, and employee burnout. Many employees found themselves working longer hours and taking fewer vacations out of fear of losing their jobs.
Add economic instability, and the situation becomes ripe for unhealthy (and sometimes toxic) work environments. In these workplaces, employees fear “stepping out of line” could negatively impact their careers. A lot of that fear is attributable to a lack of psychological safety.
Psychological safety, or the ability to speak one’s mind without fear of retaliation, enables employees to be themselves, take risks, own up to mistakes, ask for help, and communicate openly and honestly. But while employers have historically invested in physical safety in the workplace, psychological safety hasn’t always received the same prioritization.
Below, we’ll take a closer look at what psychological safety is, why it’s essential, and how your business can promote it in today’s workplace. We’ll also share how certain HR technologies can help HR leaders support a company culture of psychological safety and ensure that every employee feels safe and valued within your organization.
What Is Psychological Safety?
The concept of “team psychological safety” was first coined in 1999 by organizational behavioral scientist and Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson. According to 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.” Psychological safety means building a workplace environment where every employee feels accepted and respected and is encouraged to speak freely without fear of retaliation.
“Because it helps employees feel comfortable sharing ideas, raising concerns, admitting mistakes, and asking questions, psychological safety improves collaboration.”
For example, say there’s a manager who regularly shuts down unconventional ideas or suggestions that challenge the status quo. This leads to the employees on that manager’s team being reluctant to share new ideas for fear of public ridicule or humiliation.
Now, imagine those same employees have a supportive manager who creates an environment of psychological safety for the team. In this instance, employees would be more willing to share innovative ideas, knowing that even if the team doesn’t adopt them, their suggestions will still be received as a welcome contribution and openly discussed by their teammates. Unlike the first example, this scenario highlights a psychologically safe environment where employees can speak openly and freely.
Why Does Psychological Safety Matter?
The first beneficiary of psychological safety is the employee. We know from countless studies that when we are in a state of constant anxiety — in this case, from the fear of saying or doing the wrong thing or of putting our status or career in jeopardy — our health suffers. Our cortisol levels are elevated, our brains are constantly preparing to fight or flee, and our creativity (and joy, for that matter) are nowhere to be found.
Yes, promoting psychological safety in the workplace benefits employees’ mental health — but that’s not all. Here are a few additional reasons why cultivating psychological safety is necessary for your organization.
1. It improves collaboration and productivity.
Because it helps employees feel comfortable sharing ideas, raising concerns, admitting mistakes, and asking questions, psychological safety can improve team collaboration. One 2020 study found that psychological safety leads employees to express their opinions more freely and be more engaged. This can help your employees work better together and, as a result, drive better outcomes for your business.
2. It leads to learning and development.
No one can grow in an environment where they’re told to hide failures or only highlight positive results. When employees are encouraged to think critically and talk candidly about past mistakes, it creates an environment that acknowledges that every experience is a chance to learn and grow. This openness invites employees to take risks, try innovative solutions, and learn along the way — even if they fall short of performance expectations.
3. It fosters inclusion and belonging.
Psychological safety encourages employees to bring their authentic selves to work without fear of being judged or ostracized. It fosters a culture of inclusion and ensures that individuals can develop deeper workplace relationships with their colleagues.
And the above leads to — you guessed it — innovation, productivity, and retention. So next time you’re faced with an executive saying, “we need more innovation, productivity, and retention,” consider pointing them toward psychological safety.
“Psychological safety is established from the top down, so how your managers choose to lead their teams matters.”
How to Promote Psychological Safety in the Workplace
Your company has just announced that it is adopting a new performance management philosophy that asks managers to rank their employees based on how much they’ve contributed to the progress of their teams. You immediately think back to the team meetings where you played devil’s advocate, poking holes in ideas and questioning the status quo.
Your fears are solidified when you receive a comment in your review about how you “challenge everything.”
At the end of the cycle, your manager puts you in the bottom 10% of the team, shrugging and telling you she had to put someone there. By the next team meeting, you have decided to hold your tongue no matter what — speaking up, it seems, is too risky.
Unfortunately, several obstacles make engendering psychological safety in the workplace a challenge. Luckily, there are ways to overcome those challenges, often with the help of HR technology solutions. Here’s a look at a few common barriers to psychological safety in the workplace and some recommendations on how to address them.
1. Manager Support
Challenge: Managers have a tremendous impact on employee experience; they help determine their direct reports’ responsibilities, set their goals, weigh in on their overall performance, and ultimately shape their day-to-day working environment within your organization.
Psychological safety is established from the top down, so how your managers choose to lead their teams matters. While effective people managers can positively influence their teams, ineffective or improperly trained managers can have the opposite effect. Shooting down employee ideas, tasking direct reports with unrealistic goals, micromanaging unnecessarily, and communicating poorly or unclearly can suppress employee opinions and hurt engagement. It’s your company’s responsibility to ensure that every people leader gets the support, manager training, and resources they need. It’s also your company’s responsibility to create the guardrails and policies that enable managers, rather than hinder them, in this goal.
Recommendation: The first place to look for solutions is your company policies and norms. How are the programs you have in place influencing managers’ ability to create psychological safety? Bring a few managers together to have a candid discussion (and do the same with a group of employees from across the company), and before doing anything else, address the policies that are standing in their way.
Next, look to the systems that support those (now enabling) policies. The right tools can help a mediocre manager transform into a great one. When you’re overwhelmed, it’s easy to let the things that make you a great leader slip through the cracks. Activities like performance conversations, career planning, and wellness check-ins take time and emotional energy, so once managers have been trained on these elements, your business should look for a tool that makes it easier for managers to engage in those positive behaviors by guiding them, reminding them, and making it all supremely easy.
2. Ongoing Alignment
Challenge: Change happens fast, and your employees need visibility into how evolving business priorities impact their work. With many employees working in a hybrid or remote work setting (and often even in different time zones), the need for transparency has only become more critical. Poor and infrequent communication can leave employees feeling isolated and confused and cause them to leap to the worst-case scenarios – shutting down their creativity and triggering their anxiety. If an employee is struggling, expectations may be disconnected.
Recommendation: Every business needs reliable ways for employees to communicate asynchronously and in real time. The right solutions can help your employees to stay plugged in regardless of their location. The most obvious tools to list here are email, messaging platforms like Slack or Microsoft Teams, and other mass communication platforms, like intranets like Notion. When utilizing multiple tools, it’s important to set expectations around which platform will be used for which kind of communication. For example:
- Email for weekly updates from department leads
- Notion for anonymous Q&A forums monitored and responded to by executives
- Zoom for a quarterly “State of the Union” video from the CEO
Another critical alignment tool is a goals program: What the company’s strategic goals are, how the company is tracking, and how a given team’s work is contributing to those goals. These are all data that give employees security that they are heading in the right direction. An effective and integrated goals platform (like Lattice) enables that kind of transparency.
3. Feedback Culture
Challenge: Employees crave feedback, and they want it frequently. Data from global analytics and advisory firm Gallup found that employees who received “meaningful” feedback from their managers in the past week were almost four times more likely to be engaged than employees who hadn’t received feedback.
But getting a single point of view during annual or biannual performance reviews alone is too little, too late.
How Nava Created a Feedback Culture
Nava, an engineering and design firm that makes public services more accessible, had a problem most would clamor for. Positive feedback flowed easily, but their team needed tools and support for sharing constructive feedback. While Nava didn’t want to undermine that spirit, it did want to foster an environment where accountability and career growth were still possible.
See how they did it: How Nava Balances High Engagement With High Performance
To do their best work, employees need to receive real-time feedback from both their managers and colleagues; this allows them to incorporate input as they receive it rather than weeks or months after the fact. Feedback is also a critical piece of psychological safety — in a way, it’s the building blocks of that safety. Without a culture of feedback, teams will have a hard time challenging each other’s ideas.
Recommendation: Feedback requires vulnerability on the part of the person giving the feedback and the person receiving it. For the individual offering feedback, they must summon the courage to share their observations or experiences. As for the receiver, they must be open to hearing someone else’s opinion of their performance or behavior. It’s precisely this vulnerability that bolsters (and requires) psychological safety.
In a psychologically safe environment, healthy feedback is ingrained within the company culture and shared as opportunities for growth arise. From constructive feedback to everyday praise, continuous feedback gives employees insight into how their work affects the organization and is perceived by others. Without it, employees are left to speculate about their performance, which can lead to higher stress levels and trigger a fight-or-flight response.
4. Employee Input
Challenge: Without visibility into the employee experience, your HR team is operating in the dark. Businesses aren’t able to quickly recognize that their communication practices are causing stress, for example, or that their ambitious quotas are fostering an overly competitive atmosphere. Your organization can invest in the best conferencing tools, but what if the real issue your employees are coping with is meeting fatigue? Unless they’re taking the time to seek out employee feedback, it’s unlikely that companies will detect early traces of burnout or undue stress, let alone understand and address their root causes.
Recommendation: Your organization should have the mechanisms and initiatives in place to listen to employees and understand how your organization can adjust to their needs and to the changing environment. The right tools — like weekly updates, pulse and engagement surveys, including aggregate metrics and free-form comments — enable leaders and HR teams to identify “hot spots” where psychological safety is at risk and address them before they become problem areas.
Creating a psychologically safe workplace allows both employees and your organization to thrive — but it doesn’t just happen overnight. When businesses support managers, ensure alignment, encourage feedback, take the time to listen to their employees, they reap the benefits of a psychologically safe environment in the process — that is, more collaboration, productivity, and engagement among their teams. And with more and more employees feeling anxious about the future, businesses must take action sooner than later.
At Lattice, we love to help companies build high-performing, psychologically safe workplaces. Download our How to Prevent and Treat Workplace Burnout for strategies that support work-life balance and eliminate employee burnout at the source.