Today’s business landscape is defined by change: New technologies are reshaping how we operate, economic conditions continue to fluctuate and remote and hybrid work have completely restructured the workplace. For businesses to adapt, employees must feel confident experimenting with new ideas and bringing those ideas to decision-makers.

This innovative freedom is only possible when an organization has a culture rooted in psychological safety. And, with the flexibility of hybrid and remote work, there need to be checks and balances to ensure every employee feels secure. This is why it’s critical for learning and development (L&D) leaders to know best practices for promoting, measuring and maintaining psychological safety in the workplace.

A Psychologically Safe Workplace

In an episode of The Business of Learning podcast, Harvard professor and psychological safety expert Dr. Amy Edmondson explained, “Psychological safety describes a climate where people feel absolutely free to take the interpersonal risks of learning.” Employees feel empowered to pose questions, concerns and observations to leadership without fear of retribution.

Lisa Crowe, vice president of content at Traliant, adds that in a psychologically safe work environment, employees feel comfortable being their authentic selves, and they are more engaged, productive and satisfied with their work. “If you’re putting on a façade, you’re taking a lot more energy away from your work, and I think it could potentially lead to burnout a lot quicker,” Crowe says.

Though respect is the foundation of psychological safety, a common misconception is that it’s about being “nice” or lowering performance expectations. Learning leader and author Loren Sanders, CPTM, clarifies, “It doesn’t mean there’s not going to be difficult conversations. It means that we are able to have those conversations in a productive way and can move through and past them.”

L&D’s Role in Psychological Safety

Training plays a significant role in promoting and enhancing psychological safety within an organization. Here are five ways in which training can contribute to a psychologically safe workplace:

1. Raising Awareness

Incorporating the basics of psychological safety in your training programs will set a baseline for all employees. Show the data that supports how psychological safety improves organizational outcomes to help employees and leaders understand its far-reaching impact. Establish specific norms and expectations for what a healthy environment looks like at your organization. Because, as Sanders puts it, “Being safe is holding people accountable. It’s not just giving them the easy way out.”

2. Developing Interpersonal Skills

The heart of psychological safety in the workplace is respect: respectful communication, respectful attitudes, respecting boundaries. Equip employees with the training they need to master effective communication, active listening, empathy and conflict resolution. There should be a standard everyone in the organization is held to.

3. Leadership Training

To gauge an organization’s psychological health, “You look at the leaders in the organization because, ultimately, that is going to set the tone for how the rest of the employees feel,” says Crowe. Emphasize the importance of inclusive leadership, training leaders to embrace diversity, treat everyone with respect and encourage different perspectives. Leaders need to understand how their actions influence their employees’ behavior and impact the entire organization’s dynamic.

4. Feedback Culture

Fostering a culture of consistent, constructive feedback helps employees and leaders provide productive input while maintaining psychological safety. Trainers can develop programs to teach employees how to give and receive feedback in a supportive and respectful manner, encouraging growth and development rather than creating tension.

5. Providing Resources

To maintain psychological safety, training managers should regularly provide resources that acknowledge societal factors and reflect the latest guidance for sustaining a safe space.

Here are some to get you started:

Methods of Measurement

Before you can determine the best approach for psychological safety training in your organization, you need to gauge where it stands currently.

Quantitative Indicators

While any data regarding employees’ comfort level is going to be subjective, it is still essential for evaluating and maintaining psychological safety.

Maggie Smith, Traliant’s senior vice president of HR, encourages asking the right questions in anonymous surveys such as, “How receptive is your manager to receiving feedback or hearing differing opinions?” or “How comfortable do you feel speaking up in meetings?”

David Mantica, vice president and general manager at SoftEd, adds, “Attrition is your No. 1 measurement. Especially surprise attrition.” If turnover is high and employees frequently leave with little to no notice, those are big indicators of disengaged employees and a lack of mutual respect at the organization.

Another quantitative indicator, he adds, is attendance at optional events or meetings. If the majority of employees are willingly attending team-building activities or after work events, that’s indicative of a healthy environment where people feel welcome and want to engage beyond their regular duties.

Qualitative Indicators

With something as delicate as the human psyche, it’s expected that behaviors reveal a lot. In an office setting, look for open doors to offices, employees who are comfortable approaching their peers, conversations that aren’t strictly business, engaging discussions in meetings, low absenteeism and low turnover.

In a remote setting, look for cameras on, interaction in chat and with other tools, casual check-ins with colleagues and a variety of voices in discussions. If remote employees have low absenteeism but feel comfortable asking for flexible schedules and time off, these are also positive indicators.

In both settings, look to see how leadership navigates meetings and responds to ideas. Do they talk over people, or do they hear them out? Do they have visible reactions to conflicting ideas or suggestions?

Why It Matters for the Business

Innovation drives growth. And, according to Sanders, innovation happens faster when employees feel psychologically safe because they are better at working collaboratively. She says a big barrier to collaboration is the inherent need to be right: “Take a step back and think, is that wrong or is it just not the way I would do it? When you can get past that, you can have a more productive conversation and work more collaboratively with other people.”

Psychological safety also drives innovation by encouraging people to take risks. Mantica cautions against playing by an old rulebook where leaders make all the decisions and are scared to fail. He says this takes the power from the employees, who will find a new employer where they “can be empowered to work the way they want to. And they will, especially if they keep up with the pace of change and disruption.”

Without the freedom to innovate, collaborate and question, employees become disengaged and struggle to adapt to change, leading to low morale, high turnover and stagnant business operations.

Final Thoughts

No workplace is without its challenges — employees will receive disappointing evaluations, tough decisions will be made and conflicts will arise. However, these challenges are easier to overcome when employees have the courage to speak up about their concerns, define their boundaries and embrace each other’s differences, “even when they don’t see eye to eye,” says Sanders.

A psychologically safe workplace embraces employees’ individual strengths while giving them the confidence to share their ideas, the freedom to fail and the motivation to get back up and try again.