What is psychological safety and why does it matter?

Mar 13, 2024

5 mins

What is psychological safety and why does it matter?

The way you feel at your workplace has an important effect on not only your perspective toward the work you do but the way you interact with your team, your performance, productivity, and the overall quality of life at a company. For a workplace to function properly, workers need to feel appreciated, understood, and supported by their colleagues and leaders in every aspect of their work. From feeling comfortable enough to share ideas or question things to having a true sense of belonging and purpose, there are many ways in which employees require a certain kind of environment to thrive.

When these conditions aren’t fostered, the quality of life for workers as well as the work itself will suffer, which is bad for employees and organizations alike. When workers’ needs aren’t met, they can begin to struggle with burnout, their work-life balance can be disrupted, and resentments can build toward their employers. A recent study found that 95% of people reported constant or even unmanageable levels of stress when at work. It also found that these stress levels caused 76% of people to experience lower productivity and the most common sources of stress were large workloads and intrapersonal conflicts with coworkers. So, how can workers and organizations work together to solve this issue?

What is psychological safety?

While different people require different environments to be successful, the overarching feeling of inclusion and security in the workplace has been coined “psychological safety” by psychologists. So, what does that mean exactly? To put it simply, psychological safety is a shared sense of security, inclusion, and acceptance in a certain environment. When you apply it practically to a workplace, it would mean that employees feel not just physically, but mentally safe in their work environment. This sense of safety means feeling safe enough to share ideas, communicate with coworkers and leadership, and more without the fear of rejection, retaliation, or many other negative behaviors that can be found in unhealthy workplaces.

The term was coined in the 1950s by a psychologist who was studying the psychological conditions that needed to be met in order to foster creativity and productivity, two of the most essential characteristics of any workplace. While the idea of psychological safety and the necessity of it is not unique to professional life, it is especially important in the context of work. People spend a great deal of their time at work, and just like in our personal lives, it’s not always easy to recognize and change unhealthy relationships with the people and institutions we interact with on a daily basis. The workplace is constantly evolving, so it’s important to examine how we can continue to improve the dynamic between people and the work they do. Today’s workforce is more flexible and independent than ever, and when the quality of life in the office improves, everybody wins.

How can you tell if your workplace is psychologically safe?

Although the modern workplace is constantly evolving, not all workers are lucky enough to feel psychological safety at work and many still find themselves in unhealthy and even toxic work environments. While knowing how to create or maintain psychological safety is important, the first step is being able to identify unsafe environments and behaviors that need to be corrected. So, how can you tell if your workplace is lacking psychological safety? Once you understand the pillars of a healthy workplace, you can identify them when they are missing. Asking yourself questions about how your team or company culture functions can help you spot red flags that contribute to an unsafe environment.

For instance, do you feel that you or others on your team are excluded or ignored? Are you afraid to make a mistake because of how others around you will react? Would you feel comfortable bringing an issue to your supervisor or asking for help? Try to brainstorm questions like these and if you notice a pattern of negative relationship dynamics within your team or with leadership, your workplace would likely benefit from implementing measures to achieve psychological safety. If you think your workplace is lacking, there are a few milestones that can help you set and track goals while working to build a healthier environment. There are many different approaches to improving professional dynamics, but sociologist Timothy Clark posits that the foundation of psychological safety can be categorized into four stages. So, what are the four pillars and how can you build them?

1. Inclusion safety

The first stage involves creating an environment where everyone on the team feels a sense of inclusion and appreciation. If certain people are excluded from the team dynamic or are made to feel unwelcome, they won’t feel comfortable being present at work or collaborating with their colleagues. Today’s workforce is rich and diverse, and company culture needs to reflect and celebrate the myriad of different backgrounds, identities, and skill sets its workers bring to the office. Inclusion safety can be built through team-building activities, niche interest clubs, and DEI initiatives that show a company’s commitment to making sure everyone feels welcome and valued at work.

2. Learner safety

The second stage is about allowing people to learn and grow at work. In order for workers to try new things, learn new skills, and advance in their careers, they need to feel safe going outside of their comfort zone and taking risks without fear of being reprimanded if they make a mistake. This stage depends on opportunity and communication. Leaders are responsible for providing or encouraging situations in which employees can think outside the box or push their boundaries without the stakes being too high. Alongside fostering learning opportunities, positive reinforcement and constructive feedback are essential to maintaining a healthy attitude toward taking chances. If someone receives harsh or unconstructive feedback when they fail, chances are they won’t want to risk expanding their horizons again.

3. Contributor safety

The third stage happens when workers feel comfortable contributing to their team, not only through performing their individual duties but also through actively participating in group dynamics. If people aren’t afraid of their ideas being rejected, ignored, or ridiculed, they will be much more likely to contribute their unique ideas and skills to team projects. For this stage, being able to recognize and cater to the unique communication styles of your colleagues is key. Some people are eager to share their thoughts when they get the chance, while others require more space and encouragement to contribute openly. When it comes to working with a team, two heads are better than one and an environment where people aren’t afraid to speak their minds will certainly function at a higher level.

4. Challenger safety

The fourth and final stage is achieved once employees are confident and secure enough to challenge ideas, team dynamics, behaviors, or even leadership without fear of negative repercussions for themselves or their careers. This is the culmination of progress made during earlier stages where workers can begin to feel safe, learn from mistakes, propose new ideas, and begin to rock the boat at work. When a company culture doesn’t facilitate an environment where workers feel comfortable speaking up about potential mistakes or missed opportunities, leadership is missing a vital resource for decision-making at all levels. Think of any corporate scandal or disastrous PR fumble—most of them were likely the result of people not feeling free to speak their minds when they saw something going wrong.

How can you make a safer environment?

So, what are some concrete steps you can take to achieve all four stages and make your workplace a healthy, productive space? It may seem like leadership bears the onus for creating a safe workplace environment, and while it is true that managers have the most influence over the way a team or company functions, building psychological safety requires support and collaboration throughout all levels of the workplace.

For leaders, the first step is to communicate that creating a safe environment is a priority. Once the need to start working towards a healthier environment is identified, the next step is to start building the kinds of infrastructure needed to create new norms around the positive patterns companies wish to put in place. Start by reducing hierarchical social barriers, take time to reflect on how new changes are impacting dynamics and be ready to make adjustments, and remember, as always, communication is key. Leaders should check in with their team throughout the process and establish new dynamics where failure is acceptable and success is celebrated.

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