Ways to Improve Psychological Safety in the Workplace

Psychological Safety

Psychological safety is a shared belief that the workplace should be a safe place for interpersonal risk-taking—where decisions and pitching ideas are protected from negative consequences of self-image or status.

It was coined by in 1999 by Amy Edmonson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard University. Her work examines how individuals come together to solve problems as a team.

Edmonson says, “when employees don't have the freedom to speak up, organisations lose mindshare and early awareness of risks.” Psychological safety is evident when colleagues trust and respect each other to be able to work candidly.

Unfortunately, most workplaces don’t meet a standard of psychological safety—and the organisation suffers.

Just because a company has always done something a certain way doesn’t mean it’s the right direction for the company’s success today. And sometimes, you need to pull plugs on  projects even after a significant amount of resources have been spent.

Be honest—how willing would you be to share your ideas in a work environment that felt cutthroat and hostile, that implemented 3-strikes-and-you’re-out rules, and played blame games?

I’m guessing like most people, you’d rather stick your head-down in your work, blend-in, and protect your reputation than rock the boat — even though you might have a groundbreaking solution.

When a leader minimises the anxiety people feel in their role, both the organisation and the team performance is maximised.

What can you do as a leader to improve psychological safety at work?

Get clear on your company values.

Your company values are the fundamental beliefs of your organisation. They act as guiding principles.

Consider what your company’s purpose is for existing, and what services or products you provide and why? How can you get your team on the same page working towards this common goal?

Encourage participation.

As a leader, you can make this space less intimidating by embodyng a growth mindset. This is the mindset that success is not based on talent alone. Success manifests out of grit, effort, and self-improvement.

Participation is difficult when one runs the risk of sharing unpopular or different ideas and is under the impression that the boss knows everything there is about the company. Everyone has something to teach—be open to the fact that you still have plenty to learn.

Give constructive feedback.

Criticism in a safe place offers the opportunity for employees to grow tremendously. This type of feedback needs to come from a source of empathy — where you try to understand another person’s experience, perspective and feelings.

Do not confuse empathy with being a pushover. Simply being nice does not help anyone achieve their goals. Being empathetic allows you to recognise that people will make mistakes, and sometimes hold unpopular opinions — as long as people are willing to grow from mistakes or are capable of working together towards a goal, it should not get in the way of one’s performance review.

If you’d like to learn more about Amy Edmonson and her work on Psychological Safety and team-work, here are some great sources to start with:

The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth