Award-winning tips for creating psychological safety

Psychological safety

Leaders who want to create psychological safety for their employees should read this article.


Because the tips come from Something Big CEO, Sally Pritchett, who won our Make A Difference Award for ‘Best Culture of Psychological Safety’ at The Watercooler Event in April. For more on her leadership style, see this article here.

Psychological safety has to come from the top, with authenticity and not spin

It can’t be something that is talked about once, in an afternoon training session, or a one-off company meeting because it’s a buzzword and you feel like you ‘should’ mention it.

“It has to be demonstrated time and time again, through a leader being vulnerable, through active leadership, through honesty and through transparency. Over time this will build up trust,” says Pritchett.

When colleagues speak up, celebrate it, even if uncomfortable

There’s no good talking about psychological safety, and how there will be no negative consequences to voicing an honest opinion, if those that do are seen to be side-lined, or admonished in any way.

While it may be difficult sometimes to have policy and practices criticised, leaders must be seen to be listening and not shutting down these conversations. Even more, these conversations, which will sometimes involve conflict (see this article for why conflict is mentally healthy) should be celebrated, not silenced.

“If employees see leaders take action because of their input, then other people will feel more encouraged to speak up,” says Pritchett. “I want new joiners to think ‘ah, that person spoke up and this CEO is doing something about it and she’s not angry’. That’s how you create a really trusted environment.”

Leaders need to tell their stories

One of the most powerful things that Pritchett has done to foster psychological safety is tell her own story, of suffering from anxiety and from having a late ADHD diagnosis, honestly.

The reaction, she says, was “huge”.

Many leaders are very reluctant to tell their stories, or be vulnerable. If they do, many want it to be very stage-managed with a slick PR machine behind it to iron out any creases. This often loses the authenticity that makes storytelling so powerful in the first place.

Pritchett urges other leaders to be brave and go for it.

“Maybe start with finding something small you feel comfortable sharing. You will find you have a whole load of employees who thank you for it,” she says. “It’s OK to be yourself and to be a human. It doesn’t take away from your leadership.”

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Treat employees like adults not children

This means being honest with them about ‘bad stuff’, too, like the possibility of redundancy, if that’s a reality of the company’s financial situation, for example.

“I’m very clear with employees that I’m going to treat them like adults which means I’m not going to sugarcoat anything,” says Pritchett.

Lead with compassion

Compassion has got connotations of ‘niceness’ but, as the guru of self-compassion Kristin Neff says, compassion can also be ‘fierce’ and, in these challenging times, often needs to be.

“It’s about honesty and authenticity. Not niceness. I can’t tell people I’m definitely not going to make them redundant if we have a massive recession, for example,” says Pritchett.

“Again, it comes back to treating employees as adults and, if we think there’s going to be redundancies, or something else that isn’t ‘safe’, we have a responsibility to warn people. People’s bills depend on our decisions.”

Leaders need to find a psychological space to feel safe in outside their job

It’s important, too, that leaders feel they have a safe space to vent about things troubling them and challenges they are grappling with. Pritchett has found this in a peer group of other CEOs which she highly recommends.

Tackle microaggressions head-on

Pritchett believes its important to nip any potentially toxic behaviours that could develop into serious culture problems – like bullying – in the bud.

For that reason she runs sessions on microagressions, defining what these are generally but then taking a deep dive into what these are specifically for different people. The result is that employees are aware of topics that might be seen as insensitive to talk about at work for some – for more on this see this feature here.

Do post-project ‘washups’

This is a review at the end of a project of what went well, what went badly, and why, with all the team present.

“This is a really open debate on how can we improve,” she says. “Yes, we’ll have done everything possible to make sure things go right, but things always go wrong. That’s life!”

Give staff the opportunity to give anonymous feedback

Something Big employees are encouraged to give their feedback via the Great Place to Work survey.

“I stressed to everybody before we did it that it’s completely anonymous and confidential and it’s an external platform that gives you the safety to say what you like and to give me honest feedback,” she says. “Because if I don’t get honest feedback, I can’t deal with issues. I also can’t say ‘here’s the feedback we got last year and here’s what we’ve all been doing together about it’.”

Out of the 60 questions, which are benchmarked against other businesses, Something Big has scored 100% on 31 of them. That means employees have either said they ‘agree’ or ‘always agree’.

Get staff making each other feel psychologically safe

While leadership must set the tone, it’s vital that employees take ownership for making each other feel psychologically safe too.

Something Big has many ways it does this – for example, its buddy system, its ‘Hero of the Quarter’ award and its yearbooks.

Yearbooks have been particularly effective because this is a real opportunity for employees to build confidence and safety in each other.

These are given out at the end of every year with a page dedicated to every employee including comments from their colleagues about their achievements, skills and what they have contributed to the company.

“This really makes such a positive difference to creating a supportive environment,” says Pritchett. “Some leaders rule by divide and conquer because they fear employees coming together. But I want our workforce to be collectively formidable.”

While undoubtedly some of these initiatives would be extremely challenging for larger organisations, they could be adapted for progressive leaders at a team level. What tip could you take from Something Big and adapt it for your own organisation?

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