Psychological safety in the workplace isn't talked about enough; here's exactly what it looks like and how to foster it.

When it comes to workplace safety, you probably immediately think about physical safety, like not getting injured on the job. But what about psychological safety?

“What is becoming increasingly clear is that without psychological safety in the workplace, it's hard for employees to be at their best,” Psychreg reports.

But what exactly is psychological safety — and what does it look like in the workplace? Even more, how can you foster psychological safety at work? Here's what you need to know.

What is psychological safety?

This concept of psychological safety in the workplace has been around since 1999 when Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson began exploring the idea.

A decade later, she explained the idea on the HBR IdeaCast, stating that: “What it's about is candor; what it's about is being direct, taking risks, being willing to say, 'I screwed that up.' Being willing to ask for help when you're in over your head.” 

It means you feel comfortable being yourself, owning your responsibilities and decisions, asking questions, taking risks, and communicating honestly with your co-workers and higher-ups. At the end of the day, you're not afraid of being punished if you make a mistake.

Why is psychological safety important?

Psychological safety in the workplace is important because it allows employees to work without feeling threatened. Instead, they feel safe.

In fact, Google researchers set out to uncover the secret to creating effective work teams. The researchers then shared their findings, which revealed team effectiveness is less about who is on the team and more about how the team works together. The most important component? Psychological safety.

“In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members,” researchers concluded. “They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.”

When employees feel psychologically safe, they don't feel threatened; they are typically more open-minded, motivated, and creative. There's a sense of trust, so the lines of communication are open between employees and managers, and employees feel comfortable taking risks — which could pay off in big ways.

What do psychologically safe teams look like?

To understand what a psychologically safe team looks like, let's look at an example of a psychologically unsafe team. When a team or workplace lacks psychological safety, it can lead to “colossal business failure” Edmondson said, citing the downfall of Wells Fargo in 2015.

In short, she explained that Wells Fargo executives failed to get feedback from their “boots on the ground” — those working in sales and promoting their products in the field. Instead, the higher-ups set unrealistic sales targets and goals and put pressure on their employees to meet them.

“So what ultimately happened was, of course, the sales folks started crossing an ethical line,” Edmondson explained. “It's a psychological safety story because from what I learned, people really did not feel it was safe to push back — to say this isn't working, it can't be done.”

On the other hand, she praised Pixar, which has produced a number of major box office hits in a crowded industry. “Ed Catmull, co-founder and longtime leader, has gone out of his way and very deliberately to create and keep creating a psychologically safe environment where candor is expected,” Edmondson noted.

He does this by being transparent and sharing his own mistakes with employees — proving he's human just like everyone else on the team — and by hosting meetings designed to give candid feedback on projects.

On a psychologically safe team, you feel comfortable voicing concerns, taking risks, and asking for help. You should also feel as though your skills and talents are being valued and utilized.

How can you foster psychological safety in the workplace?

If you want to focus on fostering psychological safety on your team or in your workplace, there are several impactful steps you can take, including:

1. Setting an example

As cliche as it sounds, lead by example. Even if you're not the team leader, you can still set an example by being respectful, sparking honest discussions, and offering constructive feedback. That's exactly what Edmondson was talking about when she highlighted the Pixar co-founder's drive to share his mistakes with his team members.

2. Asking questions

Curiosity is a big part of a psychologically safe team. When members feel comfortable exploring new ideas and asking questions — no matter how off-the-wall they may seem — they're able to generate creative and innovative ideas.

Asking questions is also a big part of active listening, which is important in fostering psychological safety in the workplace. Team members should feel heard, and you can show them they are by asking questions and offering affirmations.

“Ask people directly, 'What are you seeing out there? I need to hear from you. What ideas do you have? What help can I offer?'” Enmondson said. “And when I ask a question … and then when I listen carefully to the response, I'm creating a moment of psychological safety. I'm saying I'm genuinely interested.”

3. Promoting a culture of candid feedback

Team members want to be heard, and they should feel as though their candid feedback isn't going to get them in trouble. You can spark feedback by simply asking for it: What can we do better? What do you think about this? How am I doing?

By asking for feedback, you're opening the conversation and helping other team members feel comfortable voicing their thoughts and concerns.

“Most people want to be effective,” Edmondson said. “Let's give them feedback about how effective they're being, but let's not try to regulate voice through fear.”

4. Supporting and respecting team members

Respect is huge when it comes to psychological safety. You want to not only feel heard in the workplace but also respected. Help team members feel respected by listening to them, acknowledging them, and showing your appreciation for them.

It's worth noting that achieving psychological safety won't happen overnight. But if you keep it top-of-mind, it's something you can easily begin incorporating into your team's culture.

Is your workplace toxic? Clean up your resume and start a new job search.

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