What Is Psychological Safety And Why Does It Matter?

With an increased focus being placed on diversity and inclusion in the workplace, business leaders need to foster a culture in which their employees feel safe and comfortable expressing their opinions and perspective. Psychological safety – where your staff feel comfortable speaking up and sharing both innovative ideas and challenging questions – is crucial to improving your team’s performance and, more importantly, their overall wellbeing.

Business leaders will want to find ways to develop their culture so that psychological safety is embedded in their teams’ behavior as a standard. To help you do that, we’ll take a look at what psychological safety is and the benefits it can bring your employees, before taking a look at how you can foster a dynamic of psychological safety in your business.

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What Is Psychological Safety?

Psychological safety is a shared belief that you won’t be criticized, humiliated, or otherwise punished for raising any ideas, questions, comments, or concerns. Defined by Dr. Amy Edmonson in 1999 as a “shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking”, it’s not simply about trust or being nice to each other. Instead, it’s more to do with human emotion and how we make each other feel within a team.

Trust is at play, to an extent, but trust is a dynamic between two individuals. Psychological safety is a group dynamic or climate where the focus is on enabling productive discussion where each person feels as though they are able to share their insights, both positive and negative, without needing to rely on self-preservation.

Why Does Psychological Safety Matter?

When employees feel psychologically safe, everyone feels the benefits. Without the fear of social consequences preventing your team from speaking up, your organization will be more likely to innovate quickly, feel the benefits that come from active diversity, and adapt well to change. When your team feels respected by their colleagues in terms of their abilities, studies have shown that performance as a whole is likely to increase. Other studies suggest that if staff feel more psychologically safe, they are more likely to:

  • Collaborate, by sharing their ideas, knowledge, and expertise with others
  • Innovate, by sharing suggestions for organizational improvements
  • Learn and grow; taking the initiative to develop new products, services, and ways of working
  • Be open and honest; admitting their mistakes and flagging where there are opportunities to improve efficiency

However, while your organization will feel the benefits of psychological safety, the people who will benefit the most are your team. While we’ve already touched on the improvements in performance that psychological safety brings, the more important benefit that this brings is to your teams’ wellbeing.

How Do You Foster Psychological Safety?

It’s clear that creating a dynamic of psychological safety in the workplace should be a priority for all businesses, but how can business leaders create and foster this dynamic? As with most cultural behaviors, it relies on line managers and senior leadership to model behaviors that are consistent with psychological safety.

If colleagues can see their line managers and leadership team demonstrating behaviors such as active listening and facilitating engagement, they’re more likely to adopt these behaviors consistently themselves and will feel safer expressing their thoughts. However, even if your staff as a whole are highly supportive and understanding, if they don’t also see this behavior reflected by senior leadership then they won’t feel safe.

Leadership plays a huge role in creating a dynamic of psychological safety. Those who are able to admit to their mistakes, share ideas, and include others will see this behavior reflected by their employees. Ask yourself: do you feel comfortable admitting mistakes to your team? Do they feel comfortable admitting mistakes to each other, or to you? It might feel daunting and unnatural at first – particularly if you’re in a senior position.

However, we all make mistakes, and creating a culture and dynamic where it feels safe to admit mistakes and exhibit other such authentic behaviors, it can be highly beneficial in terms of both the performance and wellbeing of the whole group.

To build psychological safety in your team or organization, you’ll need to invest in upskilling your leaders at all levels of the business. They should have high levels of self-awareness and an awareness of others. This means cultivating skills such as active listening, emotional regulation, perspective-taking, and communication skills.

On top of this, they also need to have an understanding of the impact that they can have on their team. It’s all too easy to forget that your actions can have an effect on your team, and you might be doing certain things that have a negative impact on your team without realizing it.

Those who have these skills and those who have developed good psychological safety within their teams should be the ones selected for management and leadership, or else rewarded through promotion or bonuses. This will go a long way to demonstrate how important psychological safety is to your organization, and how much you value employee performance and wellbeing.

Creating a dynamic of psychological safety should be a core focus for your business or your organization over the coming months, and with the support of programs such as Positive Leaders, you can equip your leaders with the psychological skills needed to adapt, thrive, and help their team to succeed.

Author Bio: Brian Marien is Co-Founder and Chairman at Positive Group. Trained in medicine with a Masters in Health Psychology, Brian is dedicated to improving psychological wellbeing, resilience, and employee performance.

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