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Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace: What It Is and Why It Matters

Jun 23, 2023 | News

In 2005 a young woman left home to attend hospital for a routine operation. Little did she know that this would be the last time she would kiss her children goodbye. Sadly, she never returned home. Despite being in a well-equipped operating theatre with a team of skilled and highly experienced staff, a family was left grieving and the clinical team were left to face the consequences of the death of a patient under their care. A tragic outcome, but why?

Many human factors contributed to this situation, one of these being a lack of psychological safety. This meant that those who knew what needed to be done felt unable to speak up or intervene. In this article we will explore more about what psychological safety is, why it is important and how you can create more of it in your workplace.

What is Psychological Safety?

The term psychological safety has been around for the past 60 years or more. But it is the work of Dr Amy Edmunson that has brought the term into our awareness over recent years. Her studies looked at teams in clinical healthcare settings and discovered that the teams with the best outcomes were also the teams that admitted to making more mistakes. Teams with worse outcomes were hiding their mistakes. She concluded that the teams that performed well were those that shared the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. The team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.

In our earlier tale of tragedy, had the nurses who brought in the equipment for an emergency procedure felt safe to speak up and challenge those more senior to them, there might have been a different outcome. And although many of us don’t go to work and have to deal with life-or-death situations, research has also shown the value of bringing psychological safety into any organisation as it encourages learning and creativity, enhances performance and offers people the freedom to speak up and challenge the status quo (Edmunson & Lei, 2014). Even the internet giant, Google, pinned psychological safety at the top of what helps make a high-performing team, highlighting that no matter how clever you may be, it is psychological safety that is one of the most impactful aspects of human performance.

What are the benefits of psychological safety in the workplace?

Creating a culture of psychological safety has been linked to many benefits for both employer and employee.

When psychological safety is present people are more likely to:

  • Feel comfortable being themselves without fear of criticism or judgement
  • Feel confident sharing their thoughts and ideas without being humiliated or ignored
  • Have trust and respect for themselves and their colleagues
  • Express concerns and admit to mistakes without embarrassment, fear or shame
  • Have the courage to share new, innovative and creative ideas
  • Feel connected to colleagues
  • Speak their truth
  • Ask questions so that they can learn and grow
  • Talk about what they are finding difficult without feeling ashamed or stupid.

Psychological safety helps to create a positive working environment with safe and trusting working relationships which ultimately is good for the wellbeing of the people who work there.

Without psychological safety people can feel reluctant to stand out, fearful of offending others and terrified of saying or asking something that makes them look stupid.

All of this can lead to a preference to keep quiet, a need to fit in, go along with the status quo and not share their ideas or what they really think. The impact of this can lead to feelings of not being good enough, isolated, alone, shamed and not valued. People can begin to fear going to work, feel drained ad exhausted from the mental energy of staying safe to survive and will not be able to contribute their best thereby exacerbating the situation. The consequences of these feelings and experiences can be devastatingly detrimental to mental health and overall wellbeing.

How to create Psychological Safety in Your Team

So, if creating psychological safety is good for your people and your performance what can you do to bring more of it into the workplace? How can leaders cultivate this type of culture?

One model that might be helpful in thinking about this is Clark’s 4 Stages of Psychological Safety.

The first stage, inclusion safety, involves creating a culture where people feel valued and respected regardless of their background or identity. This is about creating a sense of belonging for everyone in your team.

The second stage, learner safety, emphasises the importance of allowing for mistakes and failure as part of the learning process.

Contributor safety, the third stage, encourages team members to share their unique perspectives and ideas without fear of negative repercussions.

And finally, challenger safety is about creating a space whereby people feel confident enough to challenge the status quo and provide alternative solutions.

Asking questions of yourself and your team and spending time thinking about what you need to happen to create psychological safety at these different levels can be a good starting point.

  • How can you help foster a greater sense of belonging?
  • What do you need to make it feel safe to ask questions?
  • What does the team do to allow everyone to contribute?
  • How do we respond to different points of view?

By considering all four stages of psychological safety, teams can create a workplace environment where people feel comfortable taking risks, sharing their thoughts and ideas, and ultimately contributing to the success of the entire team.

How to create psychological safety for yourself

While your experience of psychological safety may be determined by the culture you work in and the people around you there are some ways of cultivating feelings of psychological safety that are within your control.

Research has shown that fostering self-compassion, a positive emotional state, positive relationships and attending to basic psychological needs such as the need for autonomy (control), connectedness (relationships) and competence (ability) can help someone manage those times when psychological safety feels threatened.

Ask yourself:

  • How can I be as kind to myself as I am to a good friend?
  • How can I be ok with feeling emotional discomfort and know that I am connected to others through my experience of suffering?
  • Who can I connect with where I am ok to be myself?
  • What in my life can I control and how do I make time to focus on these things?
  • How do I notice negative emotions and how can I create more positive experiences?

By working on yourself you can build resilience and strength to help you make better decisions and handle the day-to-day stress of working in an environment which is psychologically challenging.

So, in summary, psychological safety is essential to the wellbeing and success of any team. By creating an environment where people feel valued, respected, and safe enough to challenge the status quo, teams can foster a greater sense of belonging that encourages learning from mistakes, sharing perspectives and ideas without fear of criticism or judgement, and speaking up with questions or concerns.

Leaders must take responsibility for cultivating this type of culture by asking themselves what needs to be done at each level to create psychological safety within their team. Doing so will ensure everyone feels comfortable taking risks while contributing positively towards both individual growth and personal wellbeing, as well as collective success.

Not sure how to bring psychological safety to your workplace? We can help. Through our coaching and workshops, we work with leaders and their teams to create thriving workplaces. Get in touch to have a chat about how we might be able to support you.