Psychological Safety: Why It’s Crucial In The Workplace

If you’re like most people, you can probably remember a time when you expressed an unpopular opinion and later regretted it. Maybe you didn’t get the reaction you were hoping for, or perhaps your opinion led to some form of conflict. Maybe your opinion ruffled feathers and ultimately led to your dismissal or termination from a job. Regardless of the situation, it was probably uncomfortable and chances are, you might be hesitant to speak out again in the future.

In an effort to avoid situations like the one described above, many employees don’t speak up or express their true opinions until they’ve become comfortable with their leaders and colleagues. Until then, they are more likely to second guess themselves and less likely to take calculated risks. Either way — the longer an employee goes without achieving a sense of psychological safety, the worse it is for both the individual, the larger team, and the entire organization.

There is a certain formula that is common amongst high-performing individuals, teams, and companies, and psychological safety is a key ingredient. Building a culture focused on psychological safety is an important part of leadership development. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to develop a culture that enables employees to feel comfortable and thus perform their best.

What Is Psychological Safety?

Psychological safety is an important leadership concept that focuses on allowing employees to be themselves without negative repercussions. In a business setting, a feeling of psychological safety provides employees with the confidence to present ideas, make decisions, and take action without the fear of being punished for making a mistake. When employees feel their views will not be rejected or dismissed by leaders, colleagues, and team members, they are significantly more likely to speak up and be themselves. When employees feel that they can express themselves without being humiliated, it leads to a significantly more productive workplace. 

How Leadership Development Can Lead To Psychological Safety In The Workplace

Psychological safety is a mental state that directly correlates with a company’s culture and work climate. As you’ll learn in many leadership development programs, changing a company’s culture doesn’t take place overnight. Such an effort requires time and must start at the very top of the organization.

As a leader, you have the single largest impact on building or destroying a team’s sense of psychological safety. When you lead by example, your management style and the actions you take will be imitated by those around you, and will ultimately spread across your organization. Building a sense of psychological safety among your direct reports is an important part of leadership development, as it ultimately encourages all managers at all levels to adopt similar behaviors. Below are common leadership development steps you can take to start creating psychological safety among the employees you interact with on a daily basis.

Show Your Commitment

An important leadership development step towards generating psychological safety is simply showing employees you care. This can be accomplished by actively listening, engaging in conversation, and consistently seeking feedback from employees at every level of your company. If a team feels that you don’t pay attention or if they’re not being heard, they’ll be less likely to engage in the future. Displaying these leadership development skills can go a long way towards showing your team that you’re committed.

  • Be Present – When engaging in conversations, make sure you are fully present. Make eye contact and ask relevant questions. When speaking with others, devote 100% of your attention to the conversation. Being present means no distractions, so put your phone away and close your laptop.
  • Empathize, Don’t Criticize – Take the time to understand the viewpoints and feelings of your employees. An important part of leadership development is learning soft skills and empathy. Remember to repeat back the things you hear them say, ask clarifying questions, and write down things you need to take away. Even if you don’t agree, it’s important not to criticize as it’s a surefire way to prevent other employees from speaking up in the future.
  • Don’t Interrupt – Setting clear expectations and providing feedback is an essential part of leadership; however, if you interrupt or cut off an employee while speaking, he or she is less likely to participate in discussions in the future. When having conversations, give your employees the opportunity to complete their entire thoughts before offering a response.

Promote Healthy Conflict 

When employees are agreeable just for the sake of avoiding conflict, your team will be less likely to challenge ideas or concepts. However, when you’ve created a strong sense of psychological safety in the workplace, your team will feel safe challenging one another without the fear of being wrong or disrespectful.  I’ve helped clients refer to this environment as “creating healthy challenges”; even commenting “…good challenge, Fred” after a particularly insightful constructive comment.

Keep in mind, promoting healthy conflict can be tricky, and it often comes down to learning tactful phrasing and asking questions in a manner that lets others know you respect them. These skills can often be learned during leadership development.

Build Trust

Establishing a sense of emotional trust with employees and colleagues lets them know you’re on their side. When others know that you’ll treat them fairly and trust you enough to respect their ideas, they will be more willing to express their true feelings, healthy challenges, and ideas.

Leadership development teaches you how to build trust through credibility, honesty, and integrity. As you’ll learn in many leadership development programs, trust doesn’t just happen instantly. Start by following through on your commitments and continue to develop them through shared experiences over time.

Encourage Open-Mindedness 

Open minds are a critical component to building psychological safety, as employees need to feel welcomed and accepted. To create an open-minded culture, make it a habit to share feedback with your team and encourage your colleagues to share feedback with each other in a challenging, but non-derogatory manner.

Additionally, spend time coaching your team on how to be receptive to feedback, and how to leverage criticism constructively.  Psychological safety can only occur amongst a group of open-minded individuals who have established a sense of trust in one another.

Value Contributions

Learning to recognize the wins just as much as the failures is an essential part of leadership development. Your ability to stop, acknowledge, and celebrate success (or even good steps in the right direction) will not only reinforce motivation but will also drive a sense of confidence that will ultimately help employees obtain a sense of psychological safety. Always take the time to step back and recognize success, and don’t spend too much time dwelling on the failures.

Diverse thought is the cornerstone of innovation. However, compiling a team comprised of individuals from different backgrounds isn’t always enough to achieve the benefits of diversity. Instead, psychological safety must be achieved by creating an environment where people can feel free to truly be themselves. Only then can thoughts and ideas flourish, and employees will be able to find sustained motivation to make a meaningful difference.

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