Creating psychological safety at work for all employees

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Psychological safety at work has become an increasingly important inclusion issue as companies grapple with ways to retain more of their employees and create an environment where employees are fully engaged. The term, coined by Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson, refers to a belief that one can voice their concerns, speak, ask questions or make mistakes without the risk of punishment or humiliation.

But how does a company ensure psychological safety exists at all levels of the organisation? And what does that look like?

It starts at the top

To truly judge whether an organisation has strong psychological safety, you ultimately must start at the top. If senior leaders have a “my way or the highway” approach, that will have a chilling effect on employees offering new ideas or speaking up generally.

Leaders can set a positive tone as catalysts by role modeling the behaviour they expect from their team. Some ways to do that effectively include:

  • Treating all employees with respect.
  • Creating space for others to share ideas at meetings.
  • Asking team members for input – and not just as a check-the-box exercise, but really asking by expressing genuine curiosity.
  • Inviting pushback by seeking opinions that may differ from the leader’s own views.
  • Showing vulnerability.

Leaders modeling these behaviours make it more likely that mid-level managers and supervisors will follow suit in their own interactions with employees and ensure there is a company-wide culture of inclusion that prioritises psychological safety.

Making the business case for psychological safety at work

The good news is getting buy-in from senior leaders when it comes to psychological safety at work need not be a herculean task.

“Psychological safety is actually even easier (than other DEI initiatives) because it is so linked to innovation and that’s how businesses grow,” says Jo Portlock, Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion at LexisNexis Risk Solutions. “There is no point in having a great idea unless you share it,” Portlock adds. “At that level, it’s easy to get buy in.”

Along these lines, presentation plays a key role. That means HR professionals need to speak the language of senior leaders and understand their motivations in making the business case for resources to enhance psychological safety within an organisation.

Highlight the benefits of psychological safety at work

HR should show how achieving psychological safety across teams will bring an organisation closer to accomplishing its goals and objectives. They can do this by highlighting how projects with greater psychological safety have been shown to have a greater likelihood of success.

Senior leaders can relate to the bottom line and will buy into that more readily than if a goal is stated as “helping people feel safe,” not that this isn’t also important. For instance, Google’s Project Aristotle found that individuals on teams with higher psychological safety:

  • Bring in more revenue.
  • Are rated as “effective” twice as often by executives.
  • Are less likely to leave the company.

At the same time, it’s also important to explain to leaders as well as employees what psychological safety isn’t. “It’s not a get-out-of-jail free card with performance,” said Portlock.

But, she noted, organisations should establish a climate where it’s ok for employees to fail and admit mistakes as long as they learn from them. They should view mistakes as an opportunity to grow rather than punish. Otherwise, people may not come forward to admit them for fear of the repercussions.

Measurement tools are critical

So how is an organisation to know if it has issues with psychological safety at work and, even more importantly, where it may be lacking?

Leverage anonymous surveys

Portlock recommends asking a targeted series of questions across the organisation in an anonymous survey to find out if a problem exists, such as:

  • Do you feel comfortable speaking up at a meeting?
  • Would you have any fear approaching your supervisor with a concern?
  • Is there room for constructive disagreement at team meetings?
  • Does your manager welcome new ideas?
  • Does your company make members of underrepresented groups feel welcome?

Also, it’s critical to break down the survey by department to see how the company is faring and identify if there is a problem unique to a specific team or if it is organisation-wide. A general inclusion survey without that team breakdown risks missing crucial findings. For instance, the organisation may end up with a good score overall, but is that masking a big problem in a particular department?

Team-by-team progress

Portlock stresses that while broad awareness about psychological safety at work is good, what organisations really need are team-by-team based objectives. Psychological safety and inclusion generally are only as good as each individual team—and its leaders—whether you have 100 employees or 1,000.

She advises using psychological safety trainers to meet with smaller teams using “train-the-trainer models” that turn your employee-trainers into experts. These sessions can be much more engaging than general anti-discrimination courses, Portlock notes. In addition to training sessions, consider the following actions:

  • Make learning and skill development part of leaders’ day-to-day work.
  • Show through these trainings (and other trainings on unconscious bias that ferret out bias without casting blame) what a good culture looks like.
  • Provide incentives for managers based on their team’s psychological safety scores.

Cultural awareness

It’s impossible to discuss psychological safety fully without noting that it’s also inextricably linked with cultural awareness. “Certain groups naturally have lower psychological safety,” said Portlock in noting that employees under 40, people of color and other underrepresented groups might not feel psychologically safe with white male senior leaders.

That’s why the workplace psychological safety or inclusion surveys mentioned above should break down the anonymous results, to the extent possible, by demographics. If 80% of employees are indicating good feelings of inclusiveness, but the 20% who don’t are largely from underrepresented groups, that’s a red flag. It’s also another reason for digging deeper with numbers across the organisation within various teams to uncover disparate results.

Employees of different cultures may not perceive psychological safety in the same way. Consider taking special steps which may include ensuring that employees who may not be comfortable speaking publicly at a meeting realise there are other means through which they can submit their ideas. Individuals have their own comfort levels so treat them as they would like to be treated, not necessarily as you would like to be treated.

Other steps to take

Employers can also take other steps to create psychological safety at work, including the following:

ERGs and support systems

The existence of strong employee resource groups (ERGs), mentorship and networking programs and allyship all can work in tandem to create greater psychological safety. Leadership buy-in can go a long way in this regard, through managers attending ERG meetings and employees of all levels participating in mentorship programs.

Social cohesion

Creating time for activities to boost social cohesion also can boost psychological safety across the organisation. This is important with all employees, but may be especially true with remote workers.

With hybrid or virtual teams, consider dividing people into smaller groups, or breakout rooms, where they may be more comfortable sharing their ideas and perspectives. Also, ask for employee input ahead of time. Some employees may prefer typing their ideas or vulnerable statements via email or chat as opposed to verbally in a meeting.

In addition, employers can increase their chances of greater psychological safety by:

  • Recognising accomplishments.
  • Acknowledging suggestions or new ideas.
  • Encouraging virtual coffee sessions.
  • Ensuring that a stated open-door policy goes beyond words and is truly open-door.

All of these steps can enhance psychological safety by making people feel more included.