How to Improve Psychological Safety at Work

How important is psychological safety at work?

Google’s Project Aristotle launched with a singular goal — to discover the elements that make a perfect team. The project was thorough, studying teams ranging in size from three to 50, across geographies and business units, with varying levels of seniority. This project took two years, and the research concluded that one essential defining characteristic among high-performance teams is psychological safety.

Psychological safety in the workplace is essential in maintaining and growing your team and your business. It’s more than offering fun perks and adding wellness packages to your company. Being in a psychologically safe workplace affects how your team members feel about communicating, taking intelligent risks, learning from setbacks and being vulnerable with one another.

Let’s explore what psychological safety looks like and how you can nurture a safe environment for your team.

What Is Psychological Safety at Work?

Psychological safety is defined by Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School as the “shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” For example, this might manifest itself when someone feels they can contradict a more senior teammate.

Teams with high psychological safety demonstrate a group culture that makes it safe to take risks. No one embarrasses or punishes teammates on safe teams for admitting a mistake, asking a question or raising a counterpoint. To the contrary, these things are encouraged.

A psychologically safe environment means empowering your team to speak, act and think freely without fear of consequence or judgment. It creates a space where mistakes are opportunities to learn and grow, and where employees and leaders feel safe openly sharing their ideas.

When I think about leaders who cultivate psychological safety, I think about one executive in my network. At the start of every meeting, he typically won’t say much. He’ll ask many questions, but, ultimately, he will wait to share his thoughts.

His reason? He doesn’t want to influence people’s original ideas. This executive wants to hear all sides of an argument and make room for others to share their most authentic perspective. He creates space so everyone can feel seen and heard.

It is an effective strategy and a sign of servant leadership that contributes to creating safety on the team.

4 Benefits of Psychological Safety in the Workplace

The bottom line is that when people feel safe, they contribute more and are better positioned to do their very best work. Here are four of the benefits realized by employees and leaders in psychologically safe workplaces.

They Take Intelligent Risks

When it comes to change and taking risks, the human brain wants to protect us from the unknown. It’s hardwired to do so, which is why we tend to be more afraid of change and taking risks. Add in a psychologically unsafe environment, people will avoid taking those risks at all costs.

It is empowering to work in an environment that celebrates challenging the status quo, continuous improvement and a willingness to try something new. The role of leadership is to encourage these intelligent risks with an understanding that success is iterative and the next big breakthrough is hardly ever revealed in what is known.

A culture of psychological safety creates an environment where that risk-taking is less scary and is supported by the team.

They Share Their Point of View Without Fear

People want to work for companies where they are valued as people and where their opinions are sought out, listened to and carefully considered. They don’t want to be ignored or considered little more than a cog in the machine.

People now expect to work in an environment built on trust, communication and healthy conflict that ultimately fuels collaboration. Constant consensus is a pretty good sign that people aren’t sharing what’s on their minds, which means the company is missing opportunities to adapt and thrive.

Psychologically safe teams can examine ideas, reach a consensus and move forward — all without belittling colleagues. Sometimes you have to disagree and commit to get things done. Maybe your idea isn’t the right fit for the current situation, but that doesn’t mean the communication and exercise in debating alternatives wasn’t worthwhile or helpful in arriving at the right outcome.

They’re Less Likely To Quit

The Great Resignation is a clear indication that employees are no longer afraid to leave a toxic workplace that minimizes their contributions. Professionals want more from businesses and leaders, including a safe environment to do their very best work.

In today’s evolving structure of work, people are prioritizing flexibility, a sense of purpose, professional and personal growth, and overall job satisfaction. A culture of psychological safety frees up employees to pursue those goals in a way that helps people connect to something larger than themselves.

Their Performance Improves The Bottom Line

Increased productivity, performance and innovation are just some of the benefits of a psychologically safe workplace. Happy employees are freed up to focus on achieving their personal goals in service of the company’s overall objectives.

Psychological safety is not just a feel-good practice; it has real and measurable benefits to business performance and the bottom line.

3 Psychological Safety at Work Statistics

  • When most employees feel psychologically safe, the organization increases productivity by 12%. (Gallup
  • Companies that instill high-quality psychological safety at work experience 76% more engagement in the workplace and 74% less stress among employees. (Accenture)
  • 89% of employees believe that psychological safety is essential at work. (McKinsey)

4 Steps To Create Psychological Safety at Work

In the book, “No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work,” authors Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy designed an employee assessment, to help leaders determine how psychologically safe their workplace is, on a ranking scale from 0 to 30 based on the following questions:

  1. If I make a mistake on my team, it is often held against me.
  2. Members of my team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
  3. It is safe to take a risk on this team.
  4. It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
  5. Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.

They even created a website that will score the assessment for you based on your team’s answers. Honest, anonymous answers can help you gain an understanding of how your organization currently functions.

Armed with that information you can get to work. Building psychological safety at work requires consistent effort and intention from all leaders and employees. Everyone has a role to play, but leaders need to lead the charge.

Step 1: Genuinely Engage With and Listen to Your Team

Leaders are listeners. That is an uncomfortable reality for many people — especially for leaders who operate under pressure to quickly reach decisions and move forward.

If you’re not practicing active listening, you’ll make incorrect assumptions about what your employees want, how they feel about the business or what ideas they have. And you’ll consciously or unconsciously minimize the contributions of others.

One way to do this is to be deliberate about creating space for other people to speak at meetings. Ask open-ended questions that encourage discussion and depth. Follow up with team members to ensure that they’ve been heard and that you correctly understood what they said. And, like the executive I mentioned earlier, wait to share your thoughts.

I will always default to my favorite rule of leadership communication:  seek first to understand and then be understood.

Step 2: Encourage Open Communication and Healthy Debate

A psychologically safe workplace creates space for people to express their thoughts and opinions without being penalized. The best leaders recognize that healthy conflict contributes to a safe culture, improves collaboration and creates an environment where the very best ideas emerge.

Edmondson recommends reframing the conversation to shake up stale meetings and help people productively share different opinions. Meetings can be repositioned “as opportunities for information-sharing,” for example. Conflict-averse employees can be encouraged to speak up when leaders highlight the value of different perspectives.

Good leaders model this shift by encouraging inquiry and supporting people for speaking up. They also emphasize that the debate must ultimately resolve to a decision that moves the business forward — with everyone’s commitment. Psychologically safe workplaces will yield differing thoughts and even disagreements, and healthy debates help a team grow stronger.

Step 3: Build Trust

Trust in the workplace is imperative for any team that wants employees to feel comfortable sharing ideas, opinions and problems. One way to define trust is the idea that employees understand what their co-workers are responsible for accomplishing and believe they’ll live up to their promises.

Trust is also about how employees interact with each other. Trustworthiness is associated with high integrity and being willing to weigh in and contribute honestly.

With that trust comes mutual accountability. The team wins together and loses together. Trust, like psychological safety, can’t be forced, and it takes time to build. Leaders have a key role in creating an environment where employees work together, understand everyone’s responsibilities and believe in each other.

Step 4: Support Your Team

Leaders need to support their team in small and big ways. Small acts of care and recognition can demonstrate that you value employees as workers and people. Support also includes setting employees up for success with the right resources and training. It can also mean being empathetic and accommodating when someone is having a bad day at work or has a difficult personal situation. Everybody, no matter their status or title, needs support in one way or another.

Everyone wants to grow in their career. Support goes a long way in building an employee’s confidence and helping improve their individual performance and contributions to the team.

Get Started Today

Psychological safety at work should be a priority — maybe the priority — in your leadership strategy. Achieving this state contributes to effective teams and better overall performance. Leadership is a responsibility, and psychological safety is one of the most important responsibilities of them all.

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