Psychological safety in the workplace is essential to your employees’ total well-being. Here’s how to create a psychologically safe workplace and lead an engaged, high-performing team.
Table of Contents:
What is psychological safety?
Psychological safety is simply the belief that candor and vulnerability are welcome in a given setting. Creating a workplace with it, however, can be challenging.
Until people believe they won’t be punished or embarrassed, they’ll hesitate to ask questions, defer to leadership, and hold back new ideas. This restraint inhibits the free exchange of ideas, concerns, and questions.
What does psychological safety in the workplace look like?
A psychologically safe workplace is where learning and work feel exciting and engaging. Everyone is welcomed, accepted, and valued. Questions can be asked freely without embarrassment. There’s a clear sense of purpose. Any ideas can add value. People feel empowered, confident, and important.
In a psychologically safe space, people feel secure to be their authentic selves and share what they don’t know in order to learn. And they can do some of their best, most creative work. Put simply, your people should not have to mask, conceal, or change who they are to feel safe at work.
In a psychologically safe space, people feel secure to be their authentic selves and share what they don’t know in order to learn.
A workplace is psychologically safe when:
- Candor is welcome.
- Anyone can speak up with work-relevant thoughts.
- Learning and thriving can happen.
- There is trust between all team members.
- Ideas that benefit the team are accepted, regardless of source.
- Questions, requests for help, and admitting failures are encouraged.
- Conflict is constructive and interpersonally safe.
Remote and hybrid teams
Psychological safety is a primary concern on remote and hybrid teams. With many of your people spending some or all of their time working from home, HR leaders must create safety around:
- Identifying professionally relevant work-life issues
- Sharing aspects of personal circumstances related to scheduling or location
- Making the right choices for one’s self, balanced against the needs of the team
- Being especially intentional in remote exchanges
4 stages of psychological safety
In a safe, inclusive environment, every team member feels welcomed and recognized as an individual with unique strengths and challenges. Inclusion should be unrelated to any judgment of worthiness or value based on one’s background, experience, or opinions.
Team members are encouraged to take risks, ask questions, and experiment with new ideas, even if it means they make mistakes or even fail. They are allowed to explore different possibilities, think outside the box, and be creative in their approach.
Team members feel confident in their ability to make valuable contributions to the team. They are encouraged to offer their work-relevant ideas, insights, and perspectives in order to help the team move forward and achieve its goals.
4. Challenging the status quo
Team members have the freedom and confidence to express their opinions and ideas, regardless of their position within the organizational hierarchy. They feel safe and supported in their ability to speak up, be heard, and challenge the status quo without fear of repercussions.
Signs of a lack of psychological safety
Here are some potential signs that your workplace is psychologically unsafe:
- Learning, risk-taking, or asking questions feels intimidating
- Employees feel anxiety about sharing ideas or making mistakes
- Employees feel scared to be wrong and won’t admit failures
- Anonymous polls garner different results than direct feedback from employees
- There is high burnout, stress, fatigue, and attrition
- Leaders rarely admit weaknesses or mistakes
How to create psychological safety in the workplace
Building psychologically safe teams is a skill. It can be broken down into essential elements you can put into practice as an HR leader immediately and with little cost beyond time and effort.
Carve out space for candor
Collaboration relies on candor. Leaders must invite participation and create space to share. Innovative teams share a culture of psychological safety where people are willing to disagree, dissent, or challenge the status quo.
Ways to make space for open communication at work:
- Welcome and encourage input
- Listen for all voices and perspectives
- Give people room to respond
- Push people to think beyond their roles
- Don’t mistake silence for agreement
Promote equitable workplaces where everyone is valued. As you consider supporting neurodiversity on your teams, consider that psychological safety plays a vital role in building more equitable workplaces. This is precisely the argument made in this 2015 study by Amy Edmondson and Kathryn Roloff.
Healthy conflict can be difficult enough to manage when you’re encouraging candor. Social and political anxiety can strain relationships in the workplace.
Navigate these gray areas between authenticity at work and sharing opinions (that may run counter to psychological safety) by considering your corporate social responsibility model. A clear impact statement frames equity and inclusion, human rights, social justice, and environmental responsibility and keeps everyone on the same page.
Model curiosity and speaking up
Make it easier for people on your teams to share what they know and ask questions. Focus on what matters to generate awareness, empower voices, and inspire action.
A few potential questions to consider and/or pose to your team(s):
- What don’t I know?
- What are you seeing?
- What are we missing?
- What other options might we consider?
- Who has a different point of view?
- Do you have experience with things like that?
Additionally, consider assigning the role of devil’s advocate. And if you reject feedback or an idea, explain why!
Encourage vulnerability and risk-taking
Some anxiety is a consequence of feeling vulnerable. But without vulnerability, learning and thriving cannot take place. As a leader, you are responsible for encouraging the practice on your team:
- Model vulnerability
- Admit what you don’t know
- Share your mistakes
Let your team know that you understand their work is complex and new efforts come with uncertainty and risk. Mistakes inevitably happen, but don’t let the fear of making them stop anyone from being creative. Foster a space where people feel safe to take risks, even if they make mistakes. Respond appreciatively when team members explore a new idea, even if they end up being wrong!
This effort naturally creates space for others to follow your lead and be vulnerable.
Provide observational feedback
Lean into feedback as a natural part of learning. Smart leaders embrace a growth mindset and provide direct, timely, honest feedback. While criticism can erode trust and psychological safety, observations of a team member’s actions and their impact lead to immense growth.
Thoughtful leaders only have a partial view: “Here’s what I see. I know it’s not the whole story.” Productive feedback is a story of your people’s efforts, not a judgment of their character.
Lead with psychological safety
Culture is a leadership responsibility. Leaders of engaged, high-performing teams inspire innovation, collaboration, and healthy risk-taking. And they create a culture where people can learn, grow, and do their best work. Smart leaders embrace their own vulnerability at work to fully embrace psychological safety.
Psychological safety and accountability are synergetic. Smart leaders are passionate and vulnerable – they invite voices and encourage risk-taking and innovation. So set ambitious goals, hold people to high standards, and expect their best work.
Create a psychologically safe work environment with Espresa
When your people feel included, they’re more motivated to learn, contribute and challenge the status quo. Psychologically safe teams can exceed any goal, standard, or expectation. A Lifestyle Spending Account (LSA) from Espresa demonstrates that you understand your employees and what they want and need in their lives, wherever they are.
You can also build a psychologically safe community with Espresa’s Employee Resource Groups (ERG) platform, supporting a revolution in Culture Benefits®, inclusion, and actionable insights. Every member of your team deserves to feel safe and realize their full potential.
Show your employees how much they matter. Reach out to our team to learn more about Espresa and schedule a demo!