Total Business Magazine

How Managers Can Create an Environment of Psychological Safety

Jim Barnett, CEO of Glint, discusses why creating work environments that foster a sense of belonging is essential to motivate high performance and engagement.


What does it mean to feel safe at work? It’s having the sure knowledge that you are safe to take risks and to speak your mind in the workplace without undue fear of the consequences.

When employees feel psychologically safe, they also feel empowered to be themselves. Without psychological safety, however, fight-or-flight responses may hijack higher brain functions, and negative emotions can overwhelm individuals. The first casualties are perspective and analytical reasoning.

Meanwhile, employees who don’t feel psychologically safe might feel pressure from their bosses or a competitive co-worker as more than just workplace challenges, but as threats. Team members focus on the potential negative consequences of trying anything new, worried they might be criticised for something that goes wrong.

Clearly, a supportive work environment is essential to high performance and engagement, and psychological safety is the lynchpin of all this. A positive mental and emotional state elicits trust, inclusion, belonging, curiosity, confidence and inspiration — enabling employees to be more motivated and feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work. Recent research suggests that work environments where people feel able to take interpersonal risks not only perform better, but are also more creative and more likely to solve problems effectively. For example, a 2016 Google study found that the better performing teams were not those with the more capable or talented members, but those which excelled at working together. And the best predictor of good team performance was the team’s psychological safety profile, the company says.

So if we know highly engaged teams drive better business results, what can we do to get there? Best practice shows that managers need a conversational framework to help establish an environment where their teams feel safe being vulnerable. You can foster this culture of trust by:

Practicing deep respect  – Understanding that we all share needs for inclusion, validation, competence, and social acceptance. It’s important for leaders to explicitly model openness and vulnerability, in order to build trust in relationships and demonstrate the value to all tiers of the organisation. An imposing boss who resents questioning or needs the last word tends to make groups feel unsafe. Goldman Sachs’ CEO David Solomon has publicly stated that he thinks executives have to be more vulnerable, sharing their personal stories and disclosing their problems.

Embracing conflict the right way – Conflict and disagreement do not need to be negative. By creating safe spaces at work, group leaders can deepen their understanding of their team culture and engagement profile – as well as discover necessary interventions and promote a win-win outcome.

Avoiding criticism and modelling curiosity – Avoid rejecting or in any way ostracising employees that share their honest opinions, even if you don’t wish to hear them. Psychological safety means your people know they can take those risks. Cultivating a willingness to listen and building empathy are key here and leaders should be open to understanding how both sides of an issue might be true in certain respects.

Celebrating taking risks and occasional failures – Another feature of psychological safety is the celebration of risk-taking and even failure. Leaders and employees need to learn from failures in order to avoid repetition of mistakes in the future. Indeed, some companies reward failure: P&G, the billion-dollar global consumer goods giant, is known for its ‘Heroic Failure Award’, which is given to employees responsible for the biggest failures.

Understanding company culture – A supportive company culture is the foundation for breaking down fears and building an environment of psychological safety. Technology has a role in understanding the culture: to collect employee feedback, analyse data, and uncover insights that can help managers ensure they have an ongoing understanding of team culture and engagement. Regular ‘pulse checks’ of employee sentiment can reveal ebbs and flows in engagement, plus help managers pin-point trouble spots and opportunities for improvement. With this information, they can create a plan of action, which is crucial to creating a safer environment.

When managers lay the groundwork for psychological safety and model the behaviours needed for its success, they will ultimately drive engagement across the business. As a result, and as a direct result of this greater openness and vulnerability, there will be more sharing of ideas, creative problem solving, and innovative solutions.

Google knows this. It says employees that feel safe “are less likely to leave [us], they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives.”

Let’s take the cue here – and help our people trust they can share their ideas and point out the problems in our processes that may be holding us back without us realising it.

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