Imagine you’re in a meeting or other group setting and the person leading the discussion gives unclear directives. You want to ask a question, but no one around you is speaking up. You think to yourself, “Should I already know the answer to this?” Not wanting to look incompetent, you convince yourself to remain silent and find out the answer to your question after the meeting.

Have you been in this situation before? It is unlikely that we look forward to going to work each day to feel incompetent, appear unqualified or look negative. Most of us want to contribute, share and make the workplace better.

Dr. Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School coined the term “psychological safety” to refer to a climate where people are comfortable being and expressing themselves. A place with psychological safety is a place where people can share concerns without fear of repercussion, share half-baked ideas without being ridiculed and positively challenge others without retribution.

In an environment of psychological safety, employees have higher levels of engagement. On the other hand, a lack of psychological safety can lead to a workplace where people do not take risks in thoughts, ideas and problem solving.

Building an environment of psychological safety takes time and shifts in behavior and attitude. Here are three steps.

1. Set the Stage

In the first stage, it’s important to help people think differently about their work, especially what it means when things go awry. To help people shift their mindset, you must reframe their work. Our frames entail assumptions or beliefs that we layer onto reality. As humans, we automatically frame situations based on prior experiences. By reframing work, you set expectations about failure and uncertainty.

Identifying what is at stake, why it matters and for whom is also important. Reiterating the mission of the organization, team or project helps people to understand why their work is important in the bigger picture.

2. Invite Participation

The next step to create an environment of psychological safety is to invite participation in a format that people find genuine and direct. Self-protection is natural, and it feels safer to stay quiet than it does to speak up. Therefore, it’s important to be clear and direct when inviting people to participate and share. Demonstrate situational humility, which means acknowledging your errors and shortcomings, and acknowledge that although you may be the leader or the expert, you don’t know everything. Are there areas where other people are more knowledgeable, have a different perspective or have deeper insight? Be curious, ask good questions and listen intently to reach the core of the person’s message.

Set up a structure for people to share and discuss, such as a forum, focus group or anonymous concerns box. Provide guidelines for discussing or sharing, and create space for this new process.

3. Respond Productively

The first two steps are only the beginning Whether you’re a leader, peer or direct report, the way you respond to the risks that others take should be productive. A productive response has three characteristics:

  • Express appreciation for the people or person sharing. Listen to their story, acknowledge that you’ve heard them and thank them for leaving their comfort zone and trying something new.
  • Destigmatize failure by focusing on how mistakes can help improve future outcomes. Offer to help the person course-correct to do better the next time. Use this time to discuss options, consider their insights as to why they made the mistake and brainstorm next steps together. Bring in another perspective to help with the brainstorming, especially if the mistake affects others involved.
  • When people violate rules repeatedly or continuously put others in harm’s way, inaction will not help create an environment where people feel that sharing is valued. Sometimes, when violations are extreme and/or continuous, even though people speak up, the best solution is to take more extreme measures.

Creating an environment of psychological safety is vital to preventing future mistakes, innovating and increasing engagement. How do you contribute to a psychologically safe environment? Let us know by tweeting @LeashDawg and @TrainingIndustr.