Have you ever stopped and thought about what your favorite workplace looked like? How did team members operate? What kind of communication styles did leaders use to ensure employees understood expectations and held themselves accountable? How did people give and receive feedback? What made this workplace different? Chances are, there was probably a high degree of psychological safety present.
The phrase “psychological safety” has started to be used more often in organizations, along with the desire for people to speak up, ask questions, and challenge errors or mistakes. However, in many workplaces, people haven’t openly discussed what actually contributes to it, which has led to a misconstruing of the phrase by some workplace audiences. Dr. Amy Edmondson shares common feedback she’s received when talking with leaders on the subject, “Most managers start to get a little nervous. (They share) ‘I get it. I understand how this could really help people learn. I understand and I want to hear about errors. But are you saying I have to dial back a little on excellence?’”
Have leaders been hardwired to believe errors or mistakes will keep their teams from excellence? The reality is that errors are needed for teams to create an authentic and humanistic workplace that brings out excellence. Dr. David Altman, chief operating officer of the Center for Creative Leadership, provides these thoughts on the topic: “When you have psychological safety in the workplace, people feel comfortable being themselves. They bring their full selves to work and feel okay laying all of themselves on the line.”
There are many contributors to psychological safety, but these four areas are an excellent foundation for leaders to start and grow from:
1. Model Engagement, Creativity and Curiosity
Leaders should model engagement and the creativity and curiosity that come with it. Employees want to know their leader cares about what they say and about them as a person. Leaders must actively listen to the thoughts and ideas employees bring forward and work to creatively and collaboratively build on those ideas and bring them to life.
A piece of this process is staying curious when employees bring ideas forward and asking questions to stimulate further thought. If employees feel safe enough to share an idea without being judged, imagine how much stronger their engagement will be when they see their leader engaging with them and asking questions to encourage them.
2. Remove Blame and Extend Trust
How do you feel when someone points the finger of blame at you or another team member? Executive coach Amy Jen Su writes, “Our brains are trained to constantly scan for and avoid people who threaten our sense of well-being.”
It is important for leaders to openly talk about the attributes and actions of trust with their team. This conversation should also describe actions that aren’t in alignment with building trust, like placing blame or passing judgement, to clearly build healthy boundaries and dialogue around trust. The process sets the foundation for psychologically safe conversational environments.
3. Give and Receive Feedback
An important part of extending trust and opening the door for psychological safety involves modeling how to give feedback with courage and candor and how to receive it with curiosity and humility. Engaging in meaningful feedback helps leaders and team members improve their ability to have growth conversations.
Andy Horng, co-founder of leadership development and culture platform Cultivate, describes a study he worked on that found that “‘outstanding’ managers ask for feedback 21.6 percent more often than ‘consistent’ managers and have teams that request feedback 23 percent more often than consistent managers.” Data points like this one demonstrate the importance of leaders’ asking for feedback.
4. Talk About Desired Behaviors
Similar to trust, as a team works to incorporate desired behaviors into the workplace, they should discuss those behaviors and include examples. Even teams with a high degree of psychological safety need plans in place to maintain it and a process for incorporating it into onboarding as new teammates join.
Simply stating, “We are going to hold each other accountable” doesn’t help team members understand what accountability means for them. Leaders must model what it looks and sounds like, and identify metrics associated with it, so it becomes easy to identify and celebrate it in action.
Edmondson writes that in an Irish study of 170 research scientists, “psychological safety was fostered by trust in top management and in turn led to greater work engagement.” Research like this study makes the business case for psychological safety and illustrates the impact it can have in creating an engaging environment. But simply talking about having a psychologically safe environment won’t create one. It takes effort and continuous improvement to make progress and help team members create, engage in and own an environment where psychological safety thrives.