How can leaders create psychologically safe workplaces?

psychological safety

Psychological safety is a term that has been commonly used in recent years, but what is it, why does it matter and what can leaders do to create a culture that fosters it?

What is psychological safety?

Imagine, if you will, the following situations: a nurse is concerned that a doctor has made a mistake with a patient’s care but is afraid to speak up in case she is speaking ‘above her pay grade’. A new apprentice has an idea which will vastly improve the way his team works together but he’s worried that he might offend someone or that his opinion will not be valued and will be rejected; A manager is concerned that her own manager does not pay adequate consideration to her disability, but she does not want to be a burden so keeps it to herself.

It would be reasonable to conclude that these staff do not feel a sense of psychological safety in their workplace. When psychological safety is present, staff are not afraid to share their opinions, they can speak their mind without fear of rejection or reprisals; they can admit mistakes, share ideas, raise concerns, take interpersonal risks, and even challenge the status quo. There is an inclusive element here, in that all employees should feel able to speak up, no matter their position in the organisation or their diversity characteristic.

Why is it important?

Evidence indicates that psychological safety is an important factor in developing high performance teams. In the words of Dr Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School – “When people believe they can speak up at work, the learning, innovation and performance of their organisations is greater. Teams and organisations in which people believe that their voices are welcome outperform their counterparts.” 

Mental health and wellbeing in the workplace is a primary concern of mine and it makes sense that a psychologically safe environment reduces the stress of employees having to justify or prove themselves when wanting to speak up. It also makes sense that being able to truly be oneself at work, would result in employees feeling happier, more engaged and more likely to stay with their employer.

The pandemic and resulting increase in stress and anxiety has highlighted the need for workplaces to do more to increase psychological safety. So as a leader, what can you do?

Practical tips for Leaders

My top tips are:

Role-model the behaviours you wish to see (particularly vulnerability) – A leader who can project that they are not perfect, life is uncertain, and they do not have all the answers is a strong one in my opinion. This human side became apparent during the pandemic and associated lockdowns. We saw frazzled senior leaders ‘taking their corporate jacket off’ as they attempted to hold work meetings with children peering over their shoulders, waiting to be home-schooled. Although this may have been painful for senior leaders (I speak from personal experience!), this is likely to have had a positive impact on staff and increased their ability to share. In addition, being able to admit that you do not know all the answers, puts you in a position where you can bring staff alongside you to find out the answers together. This brings me to my next point….

Be proactive in canvassing the opinions of your staff– being curious and communicating that you want to hear the opinions of others will help produce solutions to meet challenges within your organisation, as well as send the message that you value employee voice. Being in a position of power can naturally supress a team member’s confidence to speak up, hence the need to work harder to draw out opinions and ideas. 

In my experience, often leaders could communicate more about how they are acting on views from employee surveys or using employee forums. If employees truly believe that their voice is being heard and that speaking up can have a positive impact on them, their team, and the organisation, they will be more likely to do so.

Value interpersonal relationships – showing compassion for your staff not just as employees but as individuals, goes a long way. Whether it’s a phone call to check how an employee is doing, or an email to the team acknowledging the challenges ahead and how you are thinking about their wellbeing during this difficult time. This can go a long way and make people feel connected to you and the organisation.

Invest in your line managers – now, more so than ever, there is an increased focus on the importance of the management relationship. There is a need for managers to be more proactive and create space for connections including wellbeing conversations. There is a need to check in with individuals and teams and to take active steps to include workers that are working remotely, or hybrid working, making sure they remain involved. Training and supporting your managers do this will be money well spent.

Whilst building a culture conducive to psychological safety is not an overnight process, the steps above will go a long way to increase trust in you as a leader and enable staff to be more willing to take interpersonal risks and speak up.

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