The need for ‘psychological safety’ was already on the rise pre-pandemic but has since soared in importance. This is due to the increasingly hybrid workplace, where relationship-building can be more challenging, as well as the introduction last year of the new ISO 45003 standard for managing psychological health and safety at work.
“Every HR director and learning & development lead is now talking about it,” says Nick Villani, founder of training company Coteam. “People were realising the need for it as part of digital transformation and more agile working, but it’s exploded in the advent of the pandemic.”
The term was first coined in 1999 by behavioural scientist and Harvard Business School professor, Amy Edmondson, who defines psychological safety as:
What is psychological safety exactly?
“A belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”
Research has shown that psychologically safe teams outperform teams where the members don’t feel safe. For example, in Google’s ‘Project Aristotle’ research in pursuit of the perfect team, it found that members with higher levels of psychological safety were less likely to leave their job. They were also more likely to bring in more revenue, be twice as effective and more likely to collaborate effectively on ideas with their colleagues.
With this post-pandemic renewed focus on creating a ‘safe’ environment comes a need for a shift in leadership style, as well as a recognition that line managers play a huge part in a team member’s feeling (or absence) of psychological safety.
New leadership is required for this new era
“The old management style of ‘command and conquer’ to rally the troops is just not as relevant in this day and age,” continues Villani. “More relevant is the idea of ‘servant leadership’; the concept that line managers should be servants to the workers, the organisation and customers. In this new era, making their team feel psychologically safe is the ‘holy pillar’ and can take a long time to build, but seconds to destroy.”
Villani argues that there are two foundational elements to psychological safety: one is comfort with dissent and the other is mutual trust and respect. Trust – according to business professor David Maister’s ‘trust equation’ – comes from: credibility (what others say about you) plus reliability (the way that you experience someone) plus intimacy (your gut feeling about whether someone has your best interests at heart) all divided by ‘self orientation’ (the extent to which the line manager is focused on their own agenda).
The “worst thing” a line manager can do in terms of breaking trust, and therefore destroying psychological safety, is undermine a team member by, for example, taking credit for work, “backstabbing, scapegoating and gas-lighting”, says Villani adding:
“If you’re managing someone and you are seen to act on your own self-interests then psychological safety is gone. And the risk of not having this safety means you have disengaged team members or, at worst, actively disengaged members which means they become poisonous to the team”.
Line managers critical in creating psychological safety
Hannah Pearsall, head of wellbeing at Hays, agrees that the line manager is absolutely central to cultivating this sense of psychological safety, which is one reason that the company is rolling out two workshops, ‘Managing Well’ and ‘Conscious Inclusion’. These workshops explore how the role of the line manager has changed over the last couple of years and how they can influence wellbeing, both positively and negatively.
“It’s about raising awareness and fostering psychological safety so that people can make mistakes without fear of what’s going to happen as a result,” she says. “It’s acknowledging that nobody’s perfect and we all have biases, despite our best intentions, but looking for really practical ways to create a culture that’s much more open and fair, where people can share their vulnerabilities, and see that being vulnerable is the best way to connect with people.”
The workshops have been quite an “eye opener” for managers, says Pearsall, because the company doesn’t usually talk about things like “vulnerability” and “empathy” and “compassionate conversations” that are all important to create an environment where employees will speak up.
Line managers: often don’t realise their impact on wellbeing
Feedback from managers has been positive and showed that, often, they don’t realise the big impact that their small actions can have, for better and worse. “I guess I’m much more aware of this because I’m talking about wellbeing day in, day out, whereas for some line managers this has been a real journey,” she says.
“Up until this point there may have been the perception that our senior management is responsible for culture but this workshop makes clear it’s a collective responsibility. Yes, some of it pushes them out of their comfort zone but that’s part of the intention of the workshop; we’ve all got to get comfortable with being uncomfortable or we’re never going to be able to truly show up as our authentic selves.”
Daisy Reeves, Global Inclusion and Diversity Client Relationship Partner at law firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, an openly gay woman, knows the power of authenticity at work and being able to speak freely about who she is and how she identifies.
Listening skills are crucial
This isn’t all about ‘speaking up’ however – for Reeves, ‘listening up’ skills are equally important ones for managers to develop if they are to successfully create a psychologically safe environment. “In a psychologically safe workplace, individuals can speak candidly to each other without fear of reprisal. But the listening is just as important as the speaking up because if you’re not listened to, what’s the point in having a ‘speak up’ culture? It can be even more damaging to trust.”
Reeves believes that this topic is having such a “renaissance” because it’s a core ingredient to re-embedding cultures that may have been diluted during the pandemic, particularly at the beginning when people were spatially separated from their teams through enforced virtual working. “Whilst Psychological Safety practices have existed for decades, it’s become a buzz phrase of the pandemic because with changes to work/life expectations, leadership styles and an asynchronous world, it’s now, more than ever, recognised as fundamental to a happy and healthy team and overall culture,” she says.
Psychological safety: source of competitive advantage
Often when people hear the phrase “talk candidly to each other” they immediately associate psychological safety with the “calling out” of undesirable behaviours, macro or micro. Yes, it does, of course include this. But, as Reeves says, it’s much broader than this too and can, for example, have an effect on creativity and innovation; a psychologically safe atmosphere is one in which everyone feels they can put forward an idea and not be shamed or ridiculed for it.
Psychological safety is more than a ‘nice to have’; in today’s market it’s increasingly a factor that can create competitive advantage. Those who get it “right” says Reeves will be more successful in retaining employees. “Those organisations which say ‘we are going to listen to you and create a ‘speak up, listen up’ culture will make people feel like they belong, which instils loyalty,” she says.
Beware of seeking perfection
But, beware of seeking perfection when it comes to psychological safety. As Reeves says:
“There is no panacea. I’d be a millionaire if there was! Let’s not forget, we work with humans and we’re all fallible so there will never be a perfectly psychologically safe workplace. But it’s important to set the scene, train, create accountability for behaviours, both bad and good, and set the tone for a safe and inclusive working environment.”
You can meet Hannah Pearsall and Daisy Reeves at this year’s MAD World Summit, where they are both joining us as speakers. MAD stands for Make A Difference. Now in it’s 5th year, the Summit is the go-to solutions-focused conference and exhibition for employers who want to create psychologically safe workplace cultures that proactively and inclusively support mental health and wellbeing. Find out more and register here.
About the author
Suzy Bashford is a freelance journalist, podcaster and workshop facilitator.
She is passionate about destigmatising mental health by creating a more honest, helpful narrative around it, and related topics like emotional intelligence, stress management and empathy. She also believes in the power of creativity and nature to improve our wellbeing, which she covers regularly in articles for the likes of Psychologies magazine and her own podcast, Big Juicy Creative.
When she’s not writing or podcasting, you’ll probably find her dipping in a cold loch, hiking with her dog or biking the mountain trails in the awesome Cairngorms National Park, where she lives.
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