How to create a psychologically safe workplace

One thing is not up for debate: the more diverse the opinions going around a business, the better. But making sure everyone feels safe in expressing themselves isn’t a given.
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What is a psychologically safe workplace?

If you’re running a business, we’ll assume you’ve done what needs to be done to create a physically safe workplace – a psychologically safe workplace is another bag entirely. It signifies that your employees feel completely comfortable being direct and honest, expressing ideas, owning up to mistakes, asking for help and working without the fear of negative consequences. You might think that this doesn’t apply with your small team where everyone has a voice, but you might be in for a surprise – a 2017 study by Gallup suggested that three out of 10 employees strongly agreed that their opinions don’t count. 

Why does a psychologically safe workplace matter?

If people feel fearful, it opens up a whole load of problems. Beyond the increases of stress and anxiety for the individual, it affects innovation, team interactions and productivity. People will be too concerned about themselves to make suggestions and help others out; new ideas won’t be expressed; and creativity and teamwork will be stifled. 

How to create one

Amy Edmondson is professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School and author of The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth. She explains how things have changed since the shift to remote work – and how to create the right environment.

Why is being intentional about this so important?

A. ‘The nature of the work that virtually everyone does today requires teamwork – and there’s a  high level of subjectivity in assessing its quality. This depends on people’s willingness to speak up. It’s a given that people will err on the side of holding back if they feel at risk of judgment or of being excluded. The human tendency to just hold back, in workplace settings, can be anywhere from catastrophic to just suboptimal.’

What major shifts have you seen happen recently?

A. ‘The virtual workspace means all of our comms are mediated through technology – a psychologically disruptive change. The micro-delays that exist on platforms like Zoom mean our brains have to work very hard to interpret what’s going on. It’s much easier to withdraw and just be left out of the conversation.’

What are the practical things leaders can do?

A. ‘They can constantly reinforce the subtle and not-so-subtle messages of the nature of the work. The default is  “the boss will tell us what to do” – the new default must be “without all eyes and ears, we’re at risk”.’

Any common mistakes you see?

A. ‘Any company that is doubling down on key performance indicators is doubling down on a myth – one that relies on the belief we don’t live in a volatile world. It drives voices underground, makes people afraid.’ 

The framework to follow

Step 1

Framing the work. Create a shared meaning by talking about the current state of the industry or why this project is important to the organisation. Admitting gaps in your knowledge is key. Make clear that this is a project for which you don’t have a playbook.

Step 2

Invite input. Ask good questions and do it all the time, where possible, using people’s names.

Step 3

Monitor your response. First, it’s where do we go from here? How can I help? What do you need? 

This article was first published in Courier issue 40, April/May 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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