How to Create Psychological Safety at Work

Mar 29, 2022

By The Lyra Team

Psychological safety at work is the foundation of high-performing teams. Without it, employees are less likely to speak up, ask questions, or propose innovative solutions. Yet only about one-quarter of employees in a Workhuman survey reported feeling psychologically safe at work.

Does your company take proactive steps to promote psychological safety in the workplace? If not, you may be missing opportunities to engage with your employees and outperform your competition.

 

What is psychological safety?

Imagine that an employee has a creative idea that could change the way their team works. But last time they shared an idea, their manager quickly shut it down. So they sit quietly to avoid the risk of rejection, and do what they’re told. If your organization promoted psychological safety, this idea—and many others—could be shared, sparking breakthroughs that could transform your business.

So what is psychological safety? Psychological safety is the confidence to share thoughts, take risks, and make mistakes without fearing repercussions. Amy Edmondson, the Harvard professor who coined the term, defines psychological safety as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”

Employees who feel psychologically safe know that they can contribute ideas and express opinions without being ridiculed, judged, or embarrassed. They don’t fear that they’ll be penalized for failures or lose status in the group. In other words, they feel free to be themselves at work.

Psychological safety at work

Psychological safety at work allows team members to participate fully in brainstorming and unleash their creativity. They feel empowered to take strategic risks in the interest of doing better work.

When there is a lack of mental safety in the workplace, employees are less likely to offer ideas, challenge incorrect information, or take the kinds of strategic risks that drive companies forward. 

So how can you tell whether your workplace feels safe to your team members? What does psychological safety in the workplace look like?

 

Psychologically safe Psychologically unsafe
  • Mutual respect and trust between team members and management
  • Employees mistrust management decisions
  • Employers micromanage employees
  • Employees ask questions, share opinions, challenge ideas, and ask for help
  • Lack of employee participation in brainstorming
  • Ideas rarely challenged
  • Workers rarely or never ask for help
  • Mistakes and failures are treated as learning opportunities
  • Mistakes draw blame or repercussions
  • Team members and management give and receive feedback routinely
  • Team members rarely offer feedback and/or feedback results in defensiveness
  • All team members contribute to discussions regardless of rank or job title
  • Team members of “higher” rank drive conversations and seem less interested in others’ opinions
  • Workers feel their skills are valued and utilized
  • Workers feel under-valued or unseen
  • People communicate with clear and direct language
  • Communication is hesitant and includes many caveats to avoid hurt feelings

Why does psychological safety matter?

According to Google researchers, psychological safety is the single most important ingredient of an effective team. Even a well-designed team with robust resources may fall short of its potential if members do not feel free to express themselves and experiment with ideas.

Some of the benefits of creating psychological safety in the workplace include:

Better employee well-being: When employees feel safe at work, they are more likely to share when they’re experiencing stress, burnout, or mental health issues, and can access support before problems escalate. 

Higher employee productivity: Creating psychological safety in the workplace can lead to a 12 percent increase in productivity, according to a Gallup report.

Greater employee engagement: When employees feel safe enough to speak up, trust each other, and take ownership of their work, they’re more likely to be fully engaged at work.

A more inclusive culture: In psychologically safe workplaces, all employees feel seen, heard, and included. Inclusion builds engagement, a positive work culture, and a healthy team that is more likely to outperform its peers.

More creativity and risk-taking: When employers build psychological safety, their people are more resilient, open-minded, confident, and even humorous—all characteristics that drive creative problem-solving. Some of the best ideas emerge from creative brainstorming and healthy risk-taking

Improved job satisfaction and retention: Employees who feel psychologically safe are less likely to quit their job. In a McKinsey survey, 89 percent of employees said that psychological safety at work is essential. The freedom to speak up leads to meaningful contributions, which fuels a sense of purpose and accomplishment. 

Professional development: Candid feedback helps employees and managers learn, grow, and perform their best. These conversations are difficult to have in a workplace that doesn’t actively work to increase psychological safety.

4 stages of psychological safety

Building a culture of psychological safety takes time and discipline. Social scientist and organizational consultant Timothy Clark discovered that this process follows a progression that maps to basic human needs. Here are Clark’s four stages of psychological safety:

Stage 1: Inclusion

Inclusion means much more than simply being assigned to a team and allowed to participate. To feel safe in a group, a person must believe they are accepted for who they are—including their work, their personality, and other aspects of their identity. True belonging begins when others willingly include the person instead of simply tolerating them. Positive social cues such as chats over coffee or invitations to lunch continue to reinforce this sense of belonging over time.

Stage 2: Learner safety

In order to contribute to the team, an employee needs to feel safe to learn more about the work they’re doing and make mistakes. This stage involves asking questions, practicing tasks, soliciting feedback, and moving beyond their comfort zone to handle new problems. When managers respond positively to questions and show respect when employees make mistakes, they convey that the workplace is a safe environment for learning.

Stage 3: Contributor safety

One important goal of learning within a team is to become a better contributor to that team. In this stage of psychological safety, leaders let their team members take the reins and assume more responsibility. That means actively soliciting team members’ knowledge in their area(s) of expertise.

Contributor safety can be stymied when a person comes up against personal or institutional bias, or a hostile team that doesn’t welcome additional input. To avoid this, it’s critical to examine your workplace for bias and cultivate team spirit rather than personal ego.

Stage 4: Challenger safety

In the final stage of psychological safety, employees feel comfortable not just doing their jobs, but also challenging ideas and the status quo. In a psychologically healthy group, members aren’t afraid they’ll risk their reputation, rapport, or advancement potential for disagreeing or raising new suggestions.

This is where a lack of psychological safety begins to impact the long-term trajectory of your organization. If employees aren’t willing to challenge lackluster ideas, suggest alternatives, or correct a potentially disastrous mistake, your company is at higher risk of underperforming.

Stage 4 of psychological safety can be the hardest for leaders to foster. It’s tempting to keep things the way they’ve always been, and it can be painful for employees to make suggestions that don’t pan out. But all norms change eventually, and no one has great ideas every time. Creating a sense of safety for your team members is more important than avoiding the momentary discomfort of productive conflict.

How to create psychological safety at work

How can managers build and promote psychological safety? Here are a few ways to help your team members feel accepted and secure.

Assess psychological safety in the workplace. Take polls or surveys to gauge employees’ sense of safety and what approaches might help. Questions might include:

  • Do you feel safe taking risks at work?
  • Do you feel comfortable asking other team members for help? 
  • Are you concerned you’ll be criticized or retaliated against if you admit a mistake?

Treat all team members with respect. When people are brave enough to offer ideas or opinions, thank them for sharing and use that input to start a dialogue. Other practices that can increase psychological safety at work include:

  • Affirming that every team member’s perspective is important
  • Giving equal weight to all team members’ opinions no matter their “rank” in the company hierarchy
  • Practicing active listening

Demonstrate empathy. Especially in stressful or uncertain times, let your team know that you understand they may be facing challenges. For example:

  • Acknowledge that productivity won’t always be 100 percent during difficult times—and that’s okay.
  • Offer flexibility around work schedules and deadlines when possible.
  • When employees disclose personal information, listen attentively and avoid reacting with judgment or negativity.

Promote social connections in the workplace. Positive social interactions at work can help build trust and team cohesion—both critical components of psychological safety. You may need to intentionally encourage these moments of connection, particularly if you manage a remote or hybrid team. Consider these options:

  • Periodically host meetups that focus less on work tasks and more on interpersonal connection. For example, establish coffee chats or opportunities to relax together over lunch break.
  • Create a Slack channel focused on lighthearted, work-related themes.
  • Use icebreaker questions to help employees get to know one another. Keep it fun and non-intrusive, such as “What is your favorite food?” or “Name one movie you’ll never get tired of, and why.”

Invest in employee mental health. Talking about mental health, proactively combating stigma, and offering robust mental health benefits can help develop psychological safety in the workplace. A comprehensive mental health benefit can address day-to-day issues like stress and burnout, as well as depression, anxiety, and more complex needs.

Understand the intersection of psychological safety and diversity. Historically, Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities have been forced to engage in survival mode to endure systemic oppression. Members of the LGBTQIA+ community have historically had to hide aspects of their identity in the workplace. As a result, team members may face microaggressions and question whether it is safe to truly bring their whole selves to work. Managers and other people leaders can increase psychological safety for these employees by:

  • Offering inclusive mental health resources. Your network of mental health providers should include individuals of different racial and ethnic backgrounds and providers who practice culturally responsive care.
  • Participating in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) training.
  • Allowing your employees to choose how much of their personal lives they share with you. Some may not want to disclose certain parts of their experience, and that’s okay. If and when they do, listen without judgment.

Practice good communication. Clear, calm, and direct communication is the hallmark of speakers who feel free to express their thoughts. Conversely, communication that is filled with caveats and worded gingerly gives the impression that you’re teetering on the edge of a conflict you desperately want to avoid. Make it clear to employees that feedback should be constructive and kind, and that questions and challenges are welcome. 

Sign up for psychological safety training. Many organizations offer manager-level training on how to create the conditions needed for psychological safety at work.

Support the unique needs of remote and hybrid workforces. Remote and hybrid organizations face unique challenges in creating psychological safety in the workplace. While in-person interactions make it easier to build connections that increase psychological safety, opportunities still exist in virtual environments. For example, speaking up can be easier for some people on a video call than in person. Here are a few tips on how to build psychological safety in teams that work remotely:

  • Be flexible with work schedules and deadlines, when possible.
  • Respect employees’ need to set boundaries between work and home life.
  • Plan virtual activities that put workers in touch with one another on a semi-regular basis.
  • On video conference calls, use tools such as hand-raising, break-out rooms, and anonymous polls to encourage participation.
  • Offer different paths for engagement, including both 1:1 and group discussions.

What role do team members play?

Every team member plays a role in creating psychological safety at work—not just managers. Here are a few effective approaches:

Ask for help. Encourage employees to approach asking for help as a normal part of work, not a sign of incompetence. 

Communicate about progress. Employees should be open with co-workers and managers about how their work is progressing. This can prevent surprise delays and sends the message that it’s safe to admit when more time is needed.

Focus on the team. Prioritizing what’s best for the team and the organization—and not what’s best for themselves—can help defuses defensiveness.

Express gratitude. Employees are less likely to feel overlooked or underappreciated when teammates offer recognition for their contributions. Yet in one survey, only about half of employees said they’ve been thanked at work in the past month.

Build a high-performing team

Your people are full of ideas, but your organization can’t reap the benefits unless they feel safe sharing those ideas. Team success hinges on the ability of individual employees to trust others and take risks. Employees do their best when work feels challenging, but not threatening. As a manager, you are in an ideal position to create psychological safety for your team.

To learn more about how to build psychological safety in the workplace, download our guide.