Psychological Safety: Not Just a Buzzword

When you’re at work, do you feel comfortable to ask questions, share ideas, try new things even when they might be risky, and show up as just “yourself”? If you answered yes, that’s a sign of psychological safety.  

Psychological safety is the concept of a shared belief among a team that it is a safe space for authenticity and risk taking. In honor of Mental Health Awareness month, we’re going to dive into this topic, which is one of the foundational elements  of the work we do here at The Silverene Group to help companies build inclusive workplace cultures. 

Understanding the significance of psychological safety is the first step towards implementing it in a comprehensive and effective way. Most leaders don’t realize the profound impact that psychological safety has on all aspects of their organization. Not only is it inextricably tied to the employees’ mental health and stress levels (which in turn impacts their performance), but also to so much more. From innovation to employee relationships, psychological safety is a determining factor for just about everything in the day-to-day of a business. 

A lack of psychological safety shows up in many forms and on every level.

Most of all, psychological safety is tightly bound to organizational culture. A lack of psychological safety shows up in many forms and on every level. I know first hand the detrimental effects feeling unsafe at work had on my mental wellbeing. I had sleepless nights often waking myself and my husband up by talking loudly in my sleep, I needed a nightguard because I was grinding my teeth, and I would often feel sick to my stomach heading into work knowing I had to deal with a boss that took pleasure in berating me and other early career co-workers.   

When people don’t feel safe to be themselves in their work environment, they are not able to meet their full potential. Without psychological safety, people become guarded. Instead of being motivated by the excitement of growth, they are driven by a fear of failure or judgement. This manifests in a lack of honesty, effort, and experimentation. Of course, when employees are afraid to try new things, innovation takes a huge hit. Instead of experimenting with different approaches, they will make the same decisions even when they’re not generating the best results. A lack of psychological safety tends to cause employees to be concerned with protecting their intellectual image and dignity. That means they’re much less likely to contribute ideas during team meetings, give honest feedback to colleagues or managers, and take the initiative to lead new projects. We tend to see a lot of asking for permission and approval in organizations where psychological safety is minimal. While psychological safety is not the answer to everything, it plays a huge part in minimizing a lot of these common issues.  

You may be wondering, is psychological safety really that big of a deal? Think of it in terms of organizations where the stakes are life and death. Hospitals, for example, have had countless life-costing incidents as a direct result of employees not feeling comfortable to speak up. Nurses who disagree with the doctor’s diagnosis and don’t think it’s their place to challenge a superior. Airplane crew members who notice an error but are afraid to be the bearer of bad news. These types of errors are occurring all the time, all around us, because psychological safety is unfortunately just not enough of a priority.   

There are many different ways to provide the varying dimensions of psychological safety, and it’s very much a ‘one-step-at-a-time’ type of journey.  

When our team works with organizations to build psychological safety, we like to begin by talking about what it actually looks, feels, and sounds like. In a recent workshop, we had people divide into groups and consider this question: “If you look at a team from the outside, and they have psychological safety, what would you see? How do you see them interacting with each other and how would they respond to challenges?” This helps solidify an abstract concept, and understand how it manifests in the day to day. Everything — processes, performance management, coaching conversations, innovation, team meetings, hiring practices, employee experiences — is impacted by psychological safety. Having a concrete understanding of exactly how and why that’s true is an integral part of actually implementing and sustaining this abstract concept. 

Building psychological safety is done most effectively through first building out the proper skillset.

Working with clients to build psychological safety varies on a case by case basis because there is no one size fits all approach to building such an intimate part of a company’s culture. We try to make each process specific to the clients’ needs, challenges, and current situation. It’s important to stress that humans feel safe in different ways, and there are many different ways to provide the varying dimensions of psychological safety. It’s very much a ‘one-step-at-a-time’ type of journey.  

Building psychological safety is done most effectively through first building out the proper skillset. First and foremost is understanding the importance of psychological safety and the different stages involved. Next is understanding more than just the definition, but actually how it shows up in day to day behavior. Another key component includes facilitation skills, meaning the ability to facilitate open, genuine conversations. This skill is not only needed for those in leadership roles, but also for the entire team. Another important trait in supporting psychological safety is listening to understand and asking curious questions.  

The truth is, psychological safety is often a blind spot. 

The truth is, psychological safety is often a blind spot. Most leaders are unaware of the importance and responsibility around nurturing it. Usually our work provides a big ‘ah-ha’ moment for leaders and team members alike, which helps kick off the transformation. In our workshops people often open up about how they have never felt psychological safety in their workplace, and they get so excited at the thought of having this hugely significant component that they didn’t realize was missing. There is of course a lot of identity discrimination associated with the lack of psychological safety (i.e. age, race, educational background, etc.), which further underscores the value of understanding and fostering psychological safety.  

Organizations and leaders that make the effort to heighten their awareness of psychological safety, and take the time to actively build it, can expect to reap great benefits.

Organizations and leaders that make the effort to heighten their awareness of psychological safety, and take the time to actively build it, can expect to reap great benefits. People will speak up more, challenge each other more, ask more questions, be more collaborative, and accept that mistakes are part of the innovation process. Without them, it’s impossible to learn and grow. Is your team afraid to meet their full potential? 

Shaara Roman is founder and CEO of The Silverene Group, a culture consultancy that helps companies align their people programs with business goals.



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