Employees don’t feel psychologically safe at work and it stifles innovation.
By Hebba Youssef
Have you ever feared admitting that you made a mistake? Or tensed up so hard when you saw a certain name pop up in your notifications? How about constantly feeling on edge during the entire workday and doubting yourself?
I remember the sinking feeling I would have before 1:1s with a certain manager I had. They were brutal and critical of everything I did. I lived in fear of admitting a mistake. I was even more scared to voice an opinion and I felt myself fading away into a person I hardly recognized at work. Every meeting featured moments of fight or flight.
Feeling psychologically safe at work is a luxury that not many get to experience.
The pandemic certainly didn’t help. Psychological safety at work during the pandemic has been more difficult to create with the move to hybrid environments. 26% of employees felt psychologically safe during the pandemic while feelings of stress, burnout and loneliness were on the rise.
Spoiler alert: psychological safety and wellbeing are connected.
Now, more than ever, we should rethink how we create environments where employees feel psychologically safe.
What is psychological safety?
When I think of my favorite teams i’ve been apart of there are two characteristics that stand out to me:
- I was able to share my wild ideas
- I was able to admit if I had made a mistake
It turns out, my favorite teams to be a part of are ones where I’ve felt psychologically safe.
Amy Edmondson first defined psychological safety as “the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes, and the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”
When studying teams she discovered that psychological safety had a direct impact on team performance.
Not to mention, promoting psychological safety creates innovation, connection, better collaboration and more effective teams.
All that sounds pretty freaking awesome right?
Let me break it down a bit further.
Dr. Timothy Clark defined the 4 stages of psychological safety. To become comfortable with speaking up and making contributions employees need feel:
Stage 1: Inclusion safety. You feel safe and accepted for who you are. Connecting and belonging is a human basic need!
Stage 2: Learner safety. At this stage you feel safe to ask questions, learn new things, experiment and make mistakes. Giving and receiving feedback is a crucial part of learning!
Stage 3: Contributor safety. You feel comfortable and safe enough to make contributions using your skills and knowledge to make a difference.
Stage 4: Challenger safety. At this stage you feel comfortable challenging certain notions when you see an opportunity to improve or change something.
If any of these feel impossible to provide, your environment may never support psychological safety.
But before you call it quits just hear me out on the benefits!
One major impact of psychological safety:
I’ve mentioned the impact and importance of psychological safety on wellbeing, engagement, connection and belonging above but there is one specific impact I want to focus on today.
When was the last time you took a risk at work? Maybe you pulled out a totally wild solution that completely changed a set plan.
Taking risks can feel really scary. I’ve been there too!
Studies have shown that when we think about risks we tend to overestimate the chances of something going wrong. Driven by the fear of something going wrong, most employees don’t end up taking many risks.
But risk taking has many great benefits! It fosters:
- Increased innovation
- Increased ownership and accountability
- Increased transparency
- Higher engagement
For startups and companies in scale mode an environment that promotes risk taking and innovation may be the best way to build thoughtful solutions.
But historically, not everyone in the workforce has been given the privilege of taking risks or the permission to fail. You know what i’m talking about!
Psychological safety is the foundation of building an inclusive work environment where employees can take risks without the fear of punishment for failing.
What People teams can do to build psychologically safe cultures:
Your leadership team is one of the biggest obstacles to building psychologically safe environments. Without leaders that are committed to promoting psychological safety, it’s not going to happen.
I’ll tell you why: because it all trickles down from the top.
Ever seen your boss come back from a meeting totally defeated or scared to push back on their boss? It’s obvious when a manager doesn’t feel psychologically safe with their boss. And that impacts you and your team and so on all the way down the organization.
In a TEDx talk Amy Edmondson defined 3 core leadership behaviors that help support psychological safety in teams.
- Frame work as a learning problem, not an execution problem.
For every project or program I’ve run, I always do a debrief. I make the entire agenda focused on what we learned and what we would do differently if we ran this project again.
Encourage your leaders and managers to do the same! That learner mindset will encourage your team to try new things and admit what is or isn’t working.
Cough learner safety cough.
- Acknowledge your own fallibility.
I make mistakes, I’m human! I also don’t know the answer to every question. But it took me time to feel comfortable admitting that to my team. But when I did? Boy oh boy did things change.
Now, imagine the impact of your leadership doing that openly on a company wide meeting? Saying they were wrong about something encourages others to do the same!
As much as possible encourage your leadership to openly talk about what they got wrong.
Spoiler alert: vulnerability has a massive impact on psychological safety!
- Model curiosity and ask a lot of questions.
Asking questions can be incredibly powerful. It shows you are curious but also that you don’t know everything. That type of vulnerability helps foster an environment where others feel comfortable speaking up and asking for help.
Does your organization have a way for employees to speak up and ask questions? If the answer is no, please go create a way for employees to ask anonymous questions. The anonymous feature is needed for employees to feel safe. Make a plan to address those questions!
This Q&A function will encourage employees to constantly ask questions and push the status quo. Cough challenger safety cough
But how does one challenge constructively in the workplace? I’m going to cover that next week!
Bonus: I wanted to include a bonus for managers who want to go build psychological safety on their team RIGHT NOW!
The red-yellow-green model is great to try with your team. At the start of your team meeting ask the team how they are feeling and have them answer with either:
- Red: not good, overwhelmed, distressed, exhausted
- Yellow: Somewhere in between
- Green: great! Happy, energized, inspired
Explain the model to your team. What each color means and how you are going to use this framework.
Start by asking, how are you feeling today?
Leaders/managers go first. Why? Because by showing vulnerability and openness your team will feel comfortable doing the same.
If your team is all saying red, consider pivoting the meeting or choosing a better time to have the conversation.
One last note: building true psychological safety takes time! We as humans are inherently distrustful of others so psychological safety is more of an evolution rather than an overnight product.
Next week, I’m going to dive into how to effectively challenge each other in the workplace!