People perform best when they feel safe and don’t have to watch over their shoulders. These days, uncertainty looms in almost every element of our lives. Hence, creating a safe workplace for people is in the best interest of any organization.
At work, the greatest threat people perceive these days is harm to their psychological identity – which stops them from sharing their opinions and ideas. For this reason, it’s important for leaders and managers to create psychological safety in the workplace.
When people have to wear a mask at work and can’t be who they really are, how can you expect any creative thinking or productivity? It is simply not possible to do your best in a place where you have to watch over your shoulders all the time.
What Is Psychological Safety?
The term was coined by Amy C. Edmundson, a researcher at Harvard Business School, and author of The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.
She calls Psychological Safety “A shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking,” adding that, “It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”
Psychological Safety is achieved when people feel they will face no negative consequence for expressing themselves fully. An organization that does not attempt to create psychological safety will risk creating an unsafe environment with low trust and engagement.
Why Is Psychological Safety Important?
Psychological Safety makes it easier for the thinking and feeling parts of our brain to stay active without triggering the amygdala. The amygdala is the most primitive part of our brain, which controls our flight or fight response, and is activated when we feel fear.
What happens at work should not trigger our primitive biological fear and flight response. However, it often does. In my experience leading teams since 2008 across different continents, I have learned that managers can take the below 6 steps to create psychological safety in their teams:
1.) Begin With Trust And Respect (Not Suspicion)
Imagine entering a space for the first time to meet people who view you with skepticism. A good example is a job interview. If the interviewer sends the signal that you are unskilled until you prove otherwise, you can easily feel threatened, even frightened. This is on top of the nerves you are already carrying to the interview.
Now, think of it in reverse. Imagine an interviewer who projects immediate trust and respect. They thank you for the opportunity to interview you, compliment your achievements, and note some highlights from your resume.
Naturally, that will put you at ease and help you relax. At the same time, the interview will also go more smoothly, as the interviewee is relaxed and able to interact sincerely.
Let’s take another example. Consider that you are a team leader at the beginning of a project. If you begin by assuming everyone in the room have the skills to achieve the goal (trust), and you project that everyone’s role is valuable (respect), the team will feel safer. The project can begin with freshness and excitement.
Conversely, if you view people with suspicion before work has even started, it will create a culture that is neither psychologically safe nor productive. If you start a project by reviewing previous mistakes, stressing the importance of achieving an outcome, or risk being penalized, you communicate a lack of trust and suspicion.
The Neuroscience of Trust, And Treating People Like Adults
The latest neuroscience research has found that the hormone oxytocin reduces fear and increases trust and empathy in the workplace. If you are wondering why trust is important, it leads to 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more life satisfaction, and 40% less burnout.
Beginning with trust and respect is not only a more effective means of creating psychological safety, but it also improves your chances of success. Below are 6 simple ways I have found to foster trust and improve performance. This is especially important if you are in a managerial position.
- Give recognition immediately after a task well done
- Give people autonomy to decide how they do their work
- Flexible job responsibilities based on people’s strengths and project requirements
- Transparency in communication
- Caring about the whole person, and not just the employee
- Being vulnerable and sharing honestly
You cultivate trust by setting a clear direction, giving people what they need to see it through, and getting out of their way. It’s not about being easy on your employees or expecting less from them. High-trust leaders hold people accountable but without micromanaging them. They treat people like responsible adults.
“Too many companies believe people are interchangeable. Truly gifted people never are. They have unique talents. Such people cannot be forced into roles they are not suited for, nor should they be. Effective leaders allow great people to do the work they were born to do.” – Warren Bennis
2.) Listen Empathetically
Your people will have concerns. They will have questions that are not only related to a project or task but also questions coming from a deeper search for security. You need to be aware of this in order to practice empathetic listening.
To create Psychological Safety, you must demonstrate that you care for the entire human being before you, not just the role they play in the organization. And this requires empathy.
Empathy is the ability to understand and step into the shoes of another person. It requires listening not just for what information an employee lacks, but also to infer what emotional security they need.
For example, you can ask “You don’t seem yourself today. Would you like to take a break and chat?”, or “I would hate to see you burn out. Are you taking care of yourself? Is there anything I can do?”. Simple statements like these can go a long way in showing your care for people as human beings.
A few words, said at the right time, can make a world of difference. And we all have the power to make a difference by practicing empathetic listening and noticing emotional cues. You never know what your support at the right moment might mean for someone else.
3.) See Conflict As An Opportunity To Find Out What People Care About
Conflicts are a natural order of life, and if we step back and see the bigger picture, there is nothing unexpected around them. They are inevitable when we work with people who think differently. If you don’t see any conflicts, perhaps people are not speaking up enough, and that is a bigger problem for any society or organization.
Conflicts are about different perspectives, and each perspective is valid for the one holding it. A perspective becomes right or wrong only when we get attached to a particular point of view. The only question is – Can we channel the energy in conflicts into productive conversations that can lead to creative solutions and better results?
Don’t Rush. Use Disagreements To Strengthen People
Yet when conflict arises between employees or within a team, you might look at it as an obstacle in need of a quick resolution so that the “real work” can continue. This approach can do more harm than good, as it can keep you from listening empathetically with respect and trust.
Use conflict and disagreements to go deep into what people care about, and bring it out in a way that builds self-awareness and strengthens people. Disagreements occur because people care about their work. Keep the focus on the “care”, not on the “disagreement”.
Attack The Problem. Not Each Other
Instead of criticizing each other in a conflict, begin by communicating that you notice how much they care. This will allow you to confront the problem, not each other.
Help people understand that different perspectives are natural. Promote mutual respect and flexibility. Clarify confusion by stressing the need for healthy friction and working towards shared goals and values.
Help People See Different Perspectives
Look at any problem or dispute as an attempt to build a bridge between two sides of a river. Perhaps one employee wants it of wood while another wants metal. Both of these employees share one thing in common: the desire to build a bridge.
Perhaps the one who wants wood has material costs in mind, while the employee who wants metal is thinking about longevity. Neither employee wants a bad bridge, and neither employee wants the bridge to fail.
This is important to note. The conflict is part of the process of building a bridge. It is not an obstacle to bridge building. The same thing is true of any project you might undertake: disagreement is inevitable, and can result in a better end result.
People feel psychologically safe when their ideas are heard as possibilities versus obstacles. When disagreements are managed in the context of completing a project collaboratively, the end result is often better than what anyone side could come up with.
Disagreement can lead to innovation, especially if you tell people, “Ok, I see we are worried about cost and longevity. Is there a way we can use to build a bridge that is both cost-effective and durable?”
This question does not dismiss the core of the idea presented by people. Instead, it shows that employees’ concerns are valued, and it encourages the kind of thinking that can lead to an even better bridge.
The focus is not on “winning” or “losing” an argument. It is on seeing conflict as a bedrock upon which great successes and deep relationships can be built.
4.) Embrace The Unique Creativity of People
The fact of the matter is that most people are risk-averse and biased against creativity. When confronted with unique ideas, people’s natural biases, regular habits, and old expectations can lead them to dismiss a valid, innovative idea simply because, at first glance, it seems weird.
“Let’s make a cartoon about a mouse that drives a steamboat.” Foolish!
“Let’s sell cars entirely on the internet.” It will never work!
Among the greatest obstacles to building Psychological Safety comes from trying to fit or mold employees into particular roles, especially when these roles don’t allow for flexibility.
Accountants calculate, lawyers argue, and coders program. At the same time, coders calculate, accountants argue, and lawyers program much more often than most would think.
Give people the flexibility to bring their own unique skills and experience to the table. Do not dismiss a marketing idea only because it is coming from an engineer, or vice-versa. You might have engineers and marketers, but do not chain them in their roles that you ignore valuable ideas when people express their unique selves.
5.) Provide Feedback More Often
Yearly and half-yearly performance reviews are of limited value and usually stressful. By their nature, they can stress your employees in ways similar to a job interview. This is especially true when an employee has received little to no feedback in the rest of the year, has worked on a project that may not have turned out as expected, or found oneself in the middle of a disagreement that saw one of their ideas rejected.
Giving feedback regularly (every few weeks) gives people an accurate understanding of how they are doing at work, and what needs to change/improve. In our fast-changing and dynamic world, you need to give people continuous feedback to stay on top of things.
Ongoing feedback reinforces the right behavior soon after it happens, rather than waiting for the end of the year. It is more casual, and people are more at ease, in comparison to a yearly process which is also tied to compensation.
It helps clear expectations on a regular basis, and allow for any course-correction sooner than later. This reduces stress, prevents waste of energy and repeated work, and improves productivity and employee confidence.
The feedback they receive will be more applicable to their immediate work, and increase employee engagement and hence productivity, instead of causing stress and burnout.
6.) Coach by Asking Questions
During one-on-one meetings or informal conversations with employees, be curious and ask questions – about their lives, desires, and ambitions. Powerful questions allow people to think deeply and come up with original answers.
Questions that go deep help connect people with their intrinsic motivation and their values. “I’m wondering what inspired you to think of the idea you presented at the last meeting.” These kinds of curious statements show leadership is listening and paying attention.
Asking questions creates space for people to express their feelings and validate their ideas. It says to them: I see you, I hear you, and I value you. Powerful open-ended questions take longer to answer, but they often end up revealing something important about yourself which you were not aware of before.
Some examples of powerful questions are :
- What is “on hold” in your life? What do you want to do someday? What are you waiting for?
- How do you hope to personally and professionally benefit from working on this project?
- Define what your perfect day would look like?
- What is your best experience in life so far? What is your worst?
The best work happens in an environment of trust and respect for people who are different and think differently. People feel valued not only when their success is celebrated but also when they’re acknowledged for their humanity and ideas.
A disagreement is not an obstacle to work but part of work. Employees who sense that disagreements are welcome at work will feel safer and offer insights more often.
When employees’ creativity peaks, they form meaningful connections and do their best work. Their happiness increases, as does their productivity. And the key to unlocking employee happiness is Psychological Safety.