Gain an advantage by adding psychological safety to your workplace playbook
Long before the pandemic was playing havoc with people’s concerns about safety in the workplace, employers knew the importance of having workplace health and safety issues on their radar. However, not all businesses had a complete picture of what constitutes a safe and healthy workplace.
Workplace safety means more than just physical safety
When you ask most people to describe workplace safety the first thing that comes to their mind is usually an image of a workplace free from unacceptable physical risk and danger to individuals, property and equipment.
However, an equally important and often overlooked element in the conversation on workplace health and safety is the element of psychological safety. Over the past 10 years we have seen more evidence that when safety encompasses workplaces free from psychological harm people and organizations are more likely to thrive.
As we move into a new phase of the pandemic response we are seeing the fallout from the stress of the past year and this is serving as a good reminder of the need to consider the mental wellbeing of our employees.
Reducing psychological harm goes beyond simply minimizing hurt feelings and ensuring positive communications. Workplaces with low regard for psychological safety are more prone to increases in costly and dangerous errors, rising costs due to employee absenteeism, higher turnover, more illness and substance use, problems with violence and generally poorer individual and team performance, all of which lead to higher costs, less productivity and far less innovation.
Historically, we have managed physical dangers in the workplace through the development of better tools and equipment, procedures and training. The approach to creating psychologically safe workplaces is similar and in many instances easier and less expensive to implement, but it does require a shift in the leadership mindset and accompanying leadership actions.
A sense of safety is a core requirement of every individual. No one wants to feel unsafe; it’s unsettling and creates internal strife. Your mental energy is more easily exhausted when you are constantly worried about making mistakes, failing, being judged and not being valued.
When people feel safe and see that their safety is important they are better able to maximize their performance. Even in jobs that involve physical risk success happens more often when employees feel their physical and psychological safety is considered a priority.
The term “psychological safety” was coined over a decade ago, in 2009, by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson. who explained that psychological safety includes “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking; a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves; a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes; a climate in which people are comfortable being (and expressing) themselves.”
A few years back, Google conducted research in their own offices and discovered that psychological safety was among the most important components of team success. According to the results from its two-year study on team performance, the highest-performing teams shared an environment of psychological safety that included the belief that employees won’t be punished for making a mistake.
Both Amy Edmonson and Google found that teams that made more mistakes actually became more successful. These were not mistakes that put anyone in danger, they were smaller mistakes the evaluation of which promoted learning and growth. Psychological safety allows for moderate risk-taking and encourages speaking up creatively and this can lead to many breakthroughs.
Creating an environment in which people feel comfortable to take well considered risks is key to fostering safer and more productive and innovative workplaces.
In the workplace, psychological safety happens when team members feel accepted and respected in their teams and current roles. This safety allows a person to feel confident enough to identify potential errors and share ideas, not necessarily always great ideas, but ideas that may spark discussions and help move conversations, practices, products and more forward.
7 Quick Steps to Increase Psychological Safety in Your workplace
Today people have many concerns on their minds. We know employees are at a higher risk of stress and burn-out than they have been in many years. You may not be able to solve all of your employees’ problems but you can take steps to help them feel more mentally healthy in your workplace.
Consider these steps to get the ball rolling on psychological safety in your workplace:
- Ask everyone for their ideas on important problems and decisions and give them an opportunity to provide those ideas in writing before discussions so everyone can consider their own ideas freely;
- Remind everyone to focus their ideas on making improvements in the workplace and not on personal issues between individuals or departments;
- Ensure everyone has an opportunity to put forward and have their ideas discussed – look for opportunities to combine plausible opinions and ideas from different people – give people opportunities to meet in smaller groups to discuss their ideas;
- Where disagreements on ideas exist, hold fuller group discussions rather than keeping those disagreements between two or three people;
- Thank team members for investing their time and effort to challenge standing or leadership views and mean it;
- Create a process that ensures team members with less authority on paper have their voices heard, provide alternative means of sharing ideas such as a visual presentation, electronic input exchanges (email, slack, sms) to help employees who may be less comfortable speaking have an opportunity to voice their opinions – this is a useful step in facilitating diversity and inclusion in your workplace;
- Add a “An All Ideas Considered,” ‘No Interruptions,” and “No Judgement of Ideas” rule to your workplace.
In psychologically safe workplaces the sense of safety and assurance fosters confidence because it allows people the freedom to think without fear of being ridiculed and held back if their ideas run contrary to existing modalities or don’t pan out. This freedom can play a role in helping your employees contribute to the overall success of your workplace.