While not a new concept, psychological safety has become part of the current conversation about what organizations and employees can do to adapt and thrive in a post-pandemic world. With more organizations keeping remote and hybrid work options in place, ensuring a psychologically safe environment is considered one of the key ways to help employees balance work-life challenges, improve team dynamics and performance and strengthen diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).
People experience psychological safety when they feel comfortable speaking up and being their authentic selves. Novartis Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School and author of “The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth,” Dr. Amy C. Edmondson, who is known for her groundbreaking research on psychological safety, describes it as a shared belief that the work environment is conducive to interpersonal risks, such as asking for help, speaking up with ideas, raising concerns and questions and admitting mistakes. Psychological safety is not about being nice or giving permission to whine or slack off, Edmonson says. It’s about candor and proactively inviting people to speak openly and have their voices heard.
The benefits of a psychologically safe workplace span many facets of the employee experience — increasing engagement, job satisfaction, retention, and health and well-being. And empowering employees to voice their views and perspectives can unleash creativity that drives innovation and productivity.
There is also a correlation between psychological safety and preventing job burnout — a key factor in rising turnover rates, known as “The Great Resignation.” A Korn Ferry survey of 7,000 U.S. professionals found that 73% of workers were feeling burned out from having no separation between work and home life, unmanageable workloads and stress over job security. The lack of clear communication about the future of post-pandemic work also contributes to employee burnout, especially for women who have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 crisis, McKinsey reports.
Managers’ Role in Reducing Uncertainty and Building Trust
In a remote or hybrid workplace, managers should be especially conscious of being clear and transparent about what it means to build psychological safety. By owning up to their own mistakes and sharing their challenges in adjusting to a changing work environment, managers show team members that it’s safe to talk about uncertainties, shortcomings and limitations.
Consistency matters — approaching situations and “bad news” with curiosity and open-ended questions that invite honest input and feedback create a foundation of trust, where failures and missteps become opportunities to learn and explore novel ideas.
Consider the following practical ways that leaders can promote psychological safety and inclusion:
- Invite people with diverse backgrounds, experiences, identities and perspectives to lead discussions.
- Seek out different ways to connect, check-in and share ideas, especially among remote teams. Video call fatigue is real and not everyone is comfortable speaking up in virtual meetings.
- Promote cultural competency and cultural humility — the ability to interact effectively with people from other cultures and reflect on how one’s own biases can discount the views of others.
- Listen with the intention to understand, not judge. Active listening is focusing on what team members say and what they don’t. Be aware of nonverbal cues that signal stress and uncertainty.
- Ask (more than once) for feedback and ideas. It’s easier for many employees to remain silent, especially with the ubiquitous mute button. Being proactive and persistent in asking team members to voice their concerns and suggestions sends a positive message that their opinions count.
- Encourage respectful, civil debate, where team members can disagree without veering into personal attacks and arguments. Fostering psychological safety is the antidote to a toxic work culture in which individuals avoid challenging the status quo or trying new things because they fear criticism and retaliation.
- Measure psychological safety. Whether it’s surveys or asking team members directly, inquiring about how safe people feel about being their authentic selves and what can be done to increase their psychological safety can further build trust and communicate that the organization cares about what’s on employees’ minds.
Training to Educate, Encourage and Empower
Changing a work culture doesn’t happen quickly and achieving psychological safety is no exception. As part of a holistic approach to fostering respect, inclusion and belonging, behavior-based training on psychological safety can engage employees in fresh ways that deepen their understanding of how to remove barriers to honest communication and collaboration. Along with other DEI-related topics such as microaggressions, unconscious bias and cultural competency, psychological safety training is another building block to encourage and empower employees to contribute ideas, raise concerns and speak up when they see, hear or experience unacceptable behavior.
The Power of “Thank You”
Promoting a culture of appreciation and recognition is another way to show employees that they have an active voice in the organization. Regularly saying “thank you” is a good start. These two words, it turns out, mean a lot, especially considering the effects of the past year on work-life balance. In a recent survey that asked 1,000 employees how often they receive a thank you from their employer or colleague, less than half (48%) said only sometimes, rarely or never. And when asked what could make employees feel more appreciated in the workplace, a thank you from their manager and support for personal/professional moments came in a close second to receiving a bonus.
As organizations reassess how to strengthen workplace culture in the post-pandemic era, ensuring a psychologically safe environment should be part of the strategy. With managers leading by their actions, embedding the principles of psychological safety into policies, processes, training, communications and other programs can energize team dynamics and performance, inspire individuals to take interpersonal risks, and enable organizations to create a culture of trust, transparency and inclusion for all employees.