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What is psychological safety at work?

Last updated

27 September 2023

Author

Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Shawnna Johnson

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In recent years, employers have paid increasing attention to employees’ mental health and wellness.

They recognize the toll disengaged, stressed, and burnt-out employees can take on their businesses. However, they also realize they can incorporate positive concepts and models that increase employee engagement and productivity. For this, they need a deeper understanding of psychological dynamics in the workplace.

One concept that has become prominent in this respect is known as psychological safety.

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety is the belief that you can be candid about your questions, ideas, concerns, and mistakes without fearing negative consequences. You’ll be willing to take risks.

The concept is integral to growing businesses, especially those that invest substantially in internal product development programs. But, facilitating psychological safety at work can have multiple positive outcomes in the short term and long term, no matter the industry or business size.

Why is psychological safety at work important?

Creating a sense of psychological safety at work is essential to retaining employees and reducing turnover. Employees who don’t fear criticism or discipline when exploring new ideas are less likely to be stressed at work. Meanwhile, employees who report high levels of workplace stress are more likely to leave.

Many employees with legitimate workplace concerns keep them to themselves because they fear retaliation. Removing that threat can buy employers considerable goodwill with employees. Moreover, addressing employees’ concerns helps them feel empowered to create change and ultimately feel more invested in their jobs.

But psychological safety in the workplace isn’t just beneficial for employees. It offers several benefits for employers and their businesses as a whole.

When employees feel they can ask questions without fear of criticism, ridicule, or discipline, they are more likely to ask questions and explore different ideas. Some of these ideas could result in new products or more efficient approaches to existing processes. Moreover, employees who feel they can make mistakes while exploring new ideas without repercussions are more likely to take risks. These risks can pay off in a big way.

Facilitating a sense of psychological safety among employees encourages them to feel more at ease sharing their ideas and collaborating with others. Co-workers who feel they can be candid with their peers may be more productive in team settings. Furthermore, employees who feel empowered to report legitimate workplace concerns can help employers catch crucial issues they may have missed through formal HR mechanisms.

For example, an employee might discuss a safety concern with their immediate supervisor that the responsible department has overlooked. Employees working in a psychologically safe environment will feel they can come forward with this information without fear of repercussions. This crucial feedback can help the employer avoid workplace injuries and associated costs.

How to create psychological safety in the workplace

Establishing a sense of psychological safety can be difficult for managers and team leaders. Employees each bring different experiences with them into the workplace. They may feel instinctively unsafe due to their own past experiences, either in or outside your business.

Creating a sense of psychological safety among your employees is well worth the effort. And while not every organization has a one-size-fits-all roadmap to establishing psychological safety, the common steps below can help you get started.

Ensure your team members know their voices matter

Fundamental to the concept of psychological safety is believing that your voice matters. Employers, team leaders, and managers can begin to facilitate this belief in the following ways:

Actively soliciting feedback

Asking your team members for their feedback about key issues is critical. It’s even more important to follow up on that feedback, incorporating it into projects where feasible, addressing concerns raised, and crediting the relevant individuals for changes.

Creating spaces for team members to share feedback

Creating regular spaces for employees to share feedback helps facilitate a culture where team members know their thoughts are valued.

Following up with team members about their concerns

Even if it takes time for an issue to be addressed, communicating with the team members who raised the issue about your progress can show them you’re taking them seriously.

Taking risks on behalf of your team members

When your team members know you’re willing to stand up for them (even when doing so may put your standing in the business or your job at risk), they will feel much safer working with you.

Sharing an unpopular opinion or stance with other business leaders that arises from your team members’ feedback demonstrates your willingness to stand with your team.

Delegating important responsibilities and tasks to your team members

Trusting your team members with substantial responsibilities shows you value their voices and contributions. Delegate big projects, give them some leeway to take risks and make mistakes, and provide guidance when needed.

Admit your own mistakes

Some business leaders go to great lengths to convince others that their mistakes are not mistakes or that someone else made them. This often occurs at the expense of their employees. Employees who work in these environments are understandably uneasy about being candid, even when asked for honesty. Your team members may be instinctively uneasy telling you that you made a mistake for fear of negative consequences.

Allay those fears by admitting when you’re wrong and acknowledging those who point out your mistakes. When others see that their co-workers have been candid without negative consequences, they will feel more comfortable about throwing up a red flag when you’re heading in the wrong direction.

Offer honest and productive responses

Listen actively when your team members share ideas, questions, or concerns with you. Wait until they have finished speaking and ask questions to obtain more details. If you have a response that addresses their concerns, offer it. If you don’t, take time to look into the matter so that you can offer a tangible solution. This might take some time. If it does, keep in contact with your team members, sharing your progress toward obtaining a resolution.

Sometimes, a team member will offer a suggestion that simply isn’t feasible. You shouldn’t beat around the bush when rejecting the idea. This could create false expectations. Even so, take the time to explain in detail why their suggestion isn’t realistic. This demonstrates that you value the employee’s input, and it will help them offer more viable ideas in the future.

Don’t forget that you can use their idea as a springboard for more practical solutions. Instead of saying, “No, that won’t work,” try phrasing your response like this: “I don’t think that idea will work because [insert reason], but we could tweak your idea so that we’re able to apply it.” The latter response tells the employee why their idea didn’t work while demonstrating that their ideas are valued.

How do you know if your team is psychologically safe?

In teams with a high degree of psychological safety, team members

  • Feel comfortable taking risks

  • Accept each other’s differences

  • Share thoughts and ideas with minimal prompting

  • Do not let fear of probable mistakes stop them from taking action

  • Bring up tough conversations and questions

  • Do not undermine each other for individual gain

  • Offer other team members advice and encouragement

  • Are not afraid to ask each other for help

Teams with high psychological safety tend to collaborate well and enjoy working together. Psychological safety helps employees feel valued and heard, which encourages engagement and motivation.

How do you know if your team is psychologically unsafe?

In contrast, employees in psychologically unsafe teams are often disengaged and unmotivated. You might see high levels of absenteeism (habitual absence from work), employee turnover, and presenteeism (going to work while unwell).

Infighting and gossiping may also affect these teams. Some team members may seek to elevate their contributions at the expense of others, while others do the bare minimum.

In a group or team with low psychological safety, members will keep their ideas, thoughts, and concerns to themselves. A team member with a serious concern may privately complain to a colleague but won’t elevate it to the group.

Team members may also experience high anxiety levels when faced with a task. Perhaps they had follow-up questions they did not feel they could ask without fear of discipline or ridicule. Or perhaps their fear of making mistakes is so strong that they are frozen into inaction. They might worry that a team member will try to co-opt and take credit for their work.

These characteristics and problems reduce productivity. The team’s projects may be plagued with delays and mistakes. HR may need to intervene several times due to infighting, gossiping, or other dysfunctional dynamics.

Common misconceptions about psychological safety

Some employees believe psychological safety is all about being nice to one another. While engaging with colleagues respectfully is important, being nice to co-workers is only one aspect of building a psychologically safe environment.

Other elements include being honest, offering leeway to team members, actively listening, and facilitating an environment where creativity, curiosity, and risk-taking are encouraged. It’s certainly important to be nice to team members in this context. However, team members can often equate being nice with failing to offer criticism, which can reduce the free flow of ideas, questions, and concerns that are essential to productive teams.

To build a psychologically safe environment, team leaders should help employees learn and master ways to offer constructive criticism and discourage them from shying away from conversations that are challenging but necessary.

Other employees may equate psychological safety with a feeling of continuous comfort—another misconception. In a psychologically safe environment, team members have tough conversations, provide unpopular perspectives, and regularly inject a bit of discomfort into the daily routine.

Progress often stems from wrestling with uncomfortable concepts and perspectives—but in a psychologically safe environment, team members can do so without the added anxiety of ridicule, discipline, or other toxic consequences.

FAQs

What is an example of poor psychological safety?

Employees finding reasons to miss work because attending work is stressful may be a sign of poor psychological safety. If these employees say they are being undermined, gossiped about, gaslit, or ridiculed by their co-workers, or they fear discipline, they are likely in a psychologically unsafe environment.

How do you build psychological safety at work?

There are several ways to establish psychological safety at work, including encouraging curiosity, admitting mistakes, providing team members with appropriate autonomy, and teaching employees how to criticize constructively. It’s also important to discourage gossiping, undermining, and infighting, among other toxic behaviors.

What’s the difference between trust and psychological safety?

When discussing trust, we talk about a connection between two individuals. By contrast, psychological safety concerns the dynamics between members of a group or team.

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