When General Motors CEO Mary Barra finally spoke up about their faulty ignition switches, she admitted that it had been a known safety issue for almost ten years. By the time recalls for more than 20 million GM vehicles were issued in 2014, the switch failure had already caused 54 crashes and killed about 100 people. Of course, faulty manufacturing happens, and most of us have dealt with a vehicle recall. But in Barra’s address of the issue, she publicly stated that the lack of action resulted from “broad bureaucratic problems and the failure of individual employees in several departments to address a safety problem.”
This example highlights a highly common issue that’s rarely discussed. Essentially, when employees feel suppressed or threatened by corporate culture, they don’t speak up. Whether for fear of appearing ignorant, facing embarrassment from other team members, or not wanting to admit to a mistake, not feeling safe or supported to say something is a problem can negatively impact the business and even cost lives.
Having a psychologically safe workplace culture allows the group to feel like they can openly express their ideas, concerns, or mistakes. However, psychologically safe work environments are something executive leaders must intentionally create and maintain. Without making this a top priority in the business, you can guarantee you’ll face severe consequences in the future.
Avoid unnecessary harm from occurring and grow your team’s trust, productivity, and innovation levels by:
- Discovering more about what psychological safety means
- Finding out how it can impact your employees and your company
- Getting tips on how to build a psychologically safe culture
What Is Psychological Safety?
Psychological safety is a basic need in all human relationships and connections. Without it, people do not feel safe expressing an idea, concern, or mistake to others. Because of this, they will take few interpersonal risks such as communicating how they feel for fear of judgment, embarrassment, or retaliation.
Suppressed ideas, silence, and limited growth opportunities are all signs of having a culture with low psychological safety. However, avid employee contribution, participation, and teamwork are top indicators of a great work environment where people feel safe to express themselves.
The term “psychological safety” was coined by Harvard Business School professor and organizational behavior scientist, Amy Edmonson. In The Fearless Organization, she defines psychological safety as a “climate where people feel safe enough to take interpersonal risks by speaking up and sharing concerns, questions, or ideas.”
How Psychological Safety Works
Every time we withhold, we rob ourselves and our colleagues of small moments of learning, and we don’t innovate.amy edmonson
In her TEDx Talk, Edmonson explains that self-protection is often the root cause for remaining silent. It’s natural to want to maintain an image with our peers and colleagues. After all, appearing ignorant, incompetent, intrusive, or negative isn’t anything any of us want. But the consequences of self-preservation often result in work anxiety that deeply affects the individuals, teams, and projects they’re a part of.
An interpersonal risk can be as simple as a team member asking, “What’s the goal of this project?” This question is a risk because asking this could make the team member look out of the loop or uneducated to the others. If the team doesn’t openly ask questions, the team member may remain silent, perhaps never clearly understanding the goal.
Sharing ideas or expressing concerns with employees and leadership can also be “risky.” For example, if senior leadership has expressed hesitation—or downright disproval—for using new software, tools, or processes, team members may not feel like they can bring forth ideas for anything new.
The Four Stages of Psychological Safety
According to Dr. Timothy Clark, author of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation, employees have to progress through the following four stages before they feel free to make valuable contributions and challenge the status quo.
- Stage 1 – Inclusion Safety: Inclusion safety satisfies the basic human need to connect and belong. In this stage, the team is safe to be themselves and are accepted for who they are. This includes their unique attributes and defining characteristics.
- Stage 2 – Learner Safety: Learner safety satisfies the need to learn and grow. In this stage, someone feels they are able to exchange in the learning process by asking questions, giving and receiving feedback, experimenting, and making (and admitting) mistakes.
- Stage 3 – Contributor Safety: Contributor safety satisfies the need to make a difference. Employees feel comfortable using their skills and abilities to make a meaningful contribution.
- Stage 4 – Challenger Safety: Challenger safety satisfies the need to make things better. People feel safe speaking up and challenging the status quo when they think there’s an opportunity to improve.
The Benefits of Psychological Safety at Work
- Higher employee engagement rates: Higher employee engagement means better business outcomes. Put simply, employees who feel actively engaged and connected with their work and have a shared belief in the organization’s values perform better than those who don’t. Unfortunately, only 35% of U.S. workers feel engaged, according to a report by Gallup.
- Increased performance: Leaders who score in the top 20% of the 70-question effectiveness and psychological safety survey by the Ecsell Institute bring in an average of $4.3 million more in revenue. Greater leadership effectiveness leads to greater team performance and output, resulting in a higher bottom line.
- Better inclusivity and diversity initiatives: Analysis from McKinsey revealed that companies in the top quartile for gender, ethnic, and cultural diversity and inclusion amongst executive teams had a 25% higher likelihood of driving more profit. Ultimately, the more representation within a company and team, the greater the performance.
- More innovation: Creativity and openness create conditions safe for interpersonal risk. As a result, innovative thought and conversation occur.
- Higher job satisfaction and retention rates: A report by McKinsey revealed that more than 19 million U.S. employees had quit their jobs in recent years. The trick for retaining talent? A positive and supportive culture with high levels of psychological safety.
- Decreased stress and anxiety in employees: The World Health Organization reports that anxiety and depression cost our global economy an estimated $1 trillion per year in lost employee productivity. Having high psychological safety at work helps combat this.
How to Build Psychological Safety at Work
1. Create the Conditions for an Effective Team
When a team of Google researchers launched Project Aristotle in 2016, their central goal was to answer the question: “What makes an effective team?”
First, they defined a team and how it differed from a “workgroup.” Then, they developed qualitative and quantitative assessments to measure effectiveness in four ways. Lastly, they put Project Aristotle to the test and applied their research process to 180 new teams of executives and high-powered employees worldwide, conducting hundreds of double-blind interviews.
Google’s researchers found that in fully effective teams, leaders develop and demonstrate the following five components:
- Psychological Safety: Psychological safety is the belief that open expression will result in punishment and humiliation. In order for a team to be effective, each individual must feel safe to fully express their thoughts and ideas. Furthermore, out of all the key components, researchers discovered this was the most important.
- Dependability: Team effectiveness relies on all members completing their work fully and on time.
- Structure and Clarity: All team members know and understand their expectations and goals, both on a team and an individual level.
- Meaning: Employees have a sense of purpose in the work, be it a personal passion, financial security, or desire for group success.
- Impact: Each team member believes their efforts contribute to the overall project and company goals.
2. Lead With Strong Core Values
When Uber first started under CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick, core company values were established. But when a lawsuit was filed against Kalanick in 2017 for concealing several company misdeeds from the board, people started looking at the company culture.
Some of Uber’s listed core values were, “meritocracy” and “toe-stepping.” Unfortunately, this ultimately permitted employees to disrupt social cohesion to “win.” By encouraging confrontation, assertiveness, aggression, and general overwork, the business created an environment that wasn’t psychologically safe.
When it comes to building psychological safety, having poor core company values is one of many top business mistakes leaders often make.
However, you can avoid developing weak core values by:
- Cultivating three to six shared ethical values and using them to serve as the business’s guiding light.
- Connecting your core values to your vision. For example, how do you want to think, act, speak, and behave as you move closer toward achieving business goals?
- Considering what you won’t stand for and developing consequences for violations against company values.
- Hiring employees who share the same values and ideology.
- Creating a strong onboarding process to ensure all employees receive training information on core values. This way, everyone at the company knows how to integrate them into their daily work lives.
- Strategizing on creating goals that align with the organization’s core values.
3. Increase Your Emotional Intelligence
Emotional intelligence (EI) refers to one’s ability to effectively regulate the emotions of themselves and others. Instead of destroying feelings of psychological safety, those with high levels of EI harness their emotions to work through problems constructively, make plans, and achieve goals.
For example, a report by TalentSmart revealed 58% of successful job performance was predicted by high levels of emotional intelligence (EI). In other words, leaders who exhibit high emotional intelligence in the workplace experience increased rates of success and innovation.
To be more emotionally intelligent:
- Practice active listening.
- Ask questions before jumping to conclusions or making judgments.
- Develop skills in empathetic leadership.
- Increase emotional intelligence by studying the four quadrants of EI: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management.
4. Adopt an Effective Leadership Style
A recent survey by McKinsey and Company examined the relationship between leadership styles and the types of work environments they cultivate. They discovered that leaders who model and reinforce safety to others on the team generate a positive team climate. To do this, they frame the work as a learning problem, acknowledge their own fallibility, and ask a lot of questions.
People-oriented leaders who practice empathetic and situational leadership are far more successful at driving productivity than those with a more authoritarian style. Conversely, leaders who are too authoritarian are viewed as threatening, harsh, and generally unsafe by the team members. As a result, they stunt productivity and business growth.
Here are the major leadership styles and how they relate to psychological safety:
- Authoritative Leadership: Traditional controlling and repressive leadership style. Highly detrimental to psychological safety at work.
- Consultative Leadership: Leaders consult team members and consider their views on issues that affect them. This style has a moderate effect on psychological safety.
- Supportive Leadership: Leaders demonstrate concern and empathy for employees and care about their success. This style has a high impact on feelings of psychological safety.
- Challenging Leadership: This leadership style challenges employees to do more than they think they can. This style has a positive impact on psychological safety, but only when a positive work environment already exists.
5. Develop a Collaborative Work Environment
Collaboration amongst team members nurtures conversation, imagination, and learning. By developing a collaborative work environment, your team’s impact will strengthen, providing a greater sense of overall contribution and accomplishment.
A study by TeamStage reports that 33% of HR specialists agree that team collaboration greatly impacts employee morale. Employee morale is crucial for maintaining a positive work culture, directly impacting how psychologically safe or unsafe members feel to express themselves fully.
6. Cultivate a Growth Mindset
Teaching employees to have a growth mindset is a great way to foster psychological safety. Start by framing the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem. By presenting a task as an opportunity to learn new information, grow, and explore, the fear of failure reduces greatly, and creativity flourishes.
Of course, failure still occurs, and mistakes happen, but embracing a growth mindset means modeling what it looks like to fail with grace. Furthermore, it helps team members handle negative outcomes with an open mind and a positive attitude. As author Carol Dweck says in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success: “Becoming is better than being.”
7. Make Vulnerability a Strength
Give your team permission to be vulnerable by demonstrating your own vulnerability. In Dare to Lead, leadership expert Brené Brown explains that leading a team is impossible without vulnerability, as that’s what holds the key to sharpening the skills of bravery and courage that effective leadership requires.
Additionally, modeling vulnerability and acknowledging your fallibility is crucial for cultivating a workplace culture of openness, honesty, and communication. If you’re comfortable being vulnerable and taking risks, your team will be, too.
8. Recognize Examples of Bravery
Even when psychological safety in the workplace exists, going out on a limb can be daunting. Acknowledging employees for speaking up, presenting ideas, and communicating how they feel is another way to increase existing feelings of trust and security.
Just by saying, “I admire your courage and creativity—thank you for sharing that idea,” you show that you value the input and that it’s also safe to provide it.
9. Practice Better Conflict Management
Unmanaged conflict can be detrimental to workplace culture. Unfortunately, A CPP Global report revealed that employees are actually involved in conflict almost three hours every week. Not surprisingly, this also results in lower productivity and higher employee turnover.
Yet, sometimes conflict is inevitable. The key is practicing better conflict management skills when it does arise.
To dissolve conflict through conflict management:
- Identify any patterns behind repeated conflicts.
- Find the main trigger for the conflict.
- Discuss it.
- Set new boundaries to prevent a reoccurring conflict from happening.
Psychology Safety at Work Is a Leader’s Responsibility
Change is inevitable, growth is optional.John C Maxwell
Building a psychologically safe workplace starts with effective leadership. Without effective leadership, this is not possible. To truly cultivate a culture of safety for your team, you must be intentional about building trust and prioritizing it. In addition, it may also require challenging any limiting beliefs you may have about your own leadership abilities. But this is where the work begins.
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