It’s not uncommon to hear people griping about the “snowflake generation” and how millennials are hypersensitive, not cut for the cutthroat world of business. Both assessments are gross exaggerations, and the latter has been proven wrong. (Check out this Insider article). Sometimes when an
employee or team leader brings up psychological safety, there is pushback.
Psychological safety isn’t about bubble-wrapping the office and passing the talking stick around the meeting room. It’s not about everybody being nice to one another passing out “criticism sandwiches” (nice-negative-nice). (Don’t do this, BTW, as it’s disingenuous and not effective.). Harvard Business Review contributor Amy Gallo defines it as, “… a shared belief held by members of a team that it’s OK to take risks, to express their ideas and concerns, to speak up with questions, and to admit mistakes — all without fear of negative consequences.”
The CCL defines it similarly, as “a shared expectation held by members of a team that teammates will not embarrass, reject, or punish them for sharing ideas, taking risks, or soliciting feedback.”
Psychological safety is simply about respect; however, respect is an abstraction. There need to be explicit parameters and behavior expectations for all employees, managers, and senior leaders. A community contract is what will drive your organization’s success.
Why is psychological safety important at work?
It helps improve collaboration and creativity: Gallup research shows that teams with high psychological safety are more likely to share ideas and take calculated risks, leading to greater innovation and problem-solving capabilities. Psychological safety fosters an environment where people feel comfortable expressing their opinions without fear of judgment, leading to a more diverse and inclusive work culture.
Strategy: Take a DEI survey to clarify your workplace cultural climate. Identify opportunities for improvement and do the work. Create a culture of belonginess at work. Ensure leaders ask for people’s opinions and thoughts, underlying beliefs and assumptions, on projects and to resolve problems.
It leads to improved employee well-being and mental health: Research suggests that psychological safety reduces stress and anxiety in the workplace, promoting better overall mental health among employees. Toxic workplaces are a real health hazard. Additionally, when employees feel psychologically safe, they are more likely to seek help and support for mental health issues.
Strategy: Provide employees with meaningful mental health benefits and take the stigma away from mental health problems. Talk about it. Have information about mental health on the website, in brochures, even posted on the workplace bulletin board (if you have one). Keep staff informed about where to access help and look for signs of distress.
It leads to effective conflict resolution and feedback. Psychological safety enables open and honest communication, making it easier for employees to address conflicts constructively. When feedback is perceived as non-threatening, employees are more receptive to it and can grow both personally and professionally.
Strategy: Get strategic with an internal communication policy. Train direct supervisors and managers to solicit and give feedback, providing employees with a space to learn, grow, and share their opinions and ideas. Through their actions, leaders teach both how to give and how to receive feedback. Reframe mistakes as opportunities and have leaders share personal mistakes, and how they resolved the problems, loudly and often. Take away the mystery of conflict. Conflict, when well managed and understood, is a key piece of growth and innovation.
It leads to better decision-making and risk management. Psychological safety encourages employees to voice concerns and share perspectives, leading to more informed and thoughtful decision-making. According to SHRM, psychological safety is linked to improved risk management, as employees are more willing to identify potential hazards and take appropriate precautions.
Strategy: Decision-making is strategic, and the more people practice the better they get. Try this HBR checklist. Empower your employees with the resources they need.
It leads to increased innovation and adaptability. Psychological safety fosters a culture of continuous learning and adaptability. In a psychologically safe environment, employees are more willing to experiment, learn from failures, and embrace change, enabling the organization to stay competitive in a rapidly evolving market.
Strategy: Develop your talent. We can’t say this enough. Talent development doesn’t only happen through workshops and continued education, but through opportunities to learn and grow every single day at work. So, we’ll say it again. Develop your talent.
Legal and ethical compliance go hand-in-hand with psychological safety. Psychological safety is the first, and most critical step, toward preventing workplace harassment and discrimination. Likewise, when employees feel safe and supported, they are more likely to report unethical behavior, fostering a culture of compliance and integrity.
Strategy: Don’t leave workplace behavior expectations “implicit.” Before you call in candidates for job interviews, there should be clarity about your organization’s harassment policies. Likewise, during onboarding, and throughout the year, there should be training, seminars, and information about workplace harassment and discrimination. Have a system in place that allows employees to report harassment and other problems while maintaining confidentiality. Keeping your workplace harassment free is not only the legal thing to do but the right thing to do.
Foster a positive and productive work environment. Improve collaboration, innovation, and employee well-being. Increase employee engagement, retention, and overall organizational success. Prioritizing psychological safety can lead to a more inclusive, resilient, and successful workplace for everyone involved.