Creating Psychological Safety at Your Company

Published On: December 22, 2021By Categories: Business Management, People at Work

When employees feel they can contribute their ideas, companies thrive.

By Alexandra Walsh

Google’s Human Resources Operations group conducted a study a couple of years ago to analyze what makes the company’s team members effective.

Its “Project Aristotle” found that “psychological safety” was the most significant success factor underpinning high-performance teams across the company.

Contrary to their expectations, the researchers reported that the capabilities of the individual team members mattered less for team performance than group processes—in other words, how team members shared information and collaborated.

In particular, when individual members attached a low interpersonal risk to voicing their ideas or making mistakes, they were more likely to share new information or challenge the status quo. In turn, the group was able to access and integrate a greater diversity of thought to drive innovation and to improve judgment and decision-making.

Employees in psychologically safe teams were also less likely to want to leave the company, they brought in more revenue, and were rated as effective twice as often by their supervisors.

Defining Psychological Safety

Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, who coined the term, defines psychological safety as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.”

What Amy Edmonson and Google both found in their separate studies is that teams that made more mistakes were ultimately more successful than others. Creating an environment where people feel comfortable to take risks is key to fostering innovation in the workplace.

Psychological safety is a key in ensuring you have a healthy company culture—one where people feel able to contribute their ideas and be themselves.

Psychological safety is present in the workplace when people believe they are free to speak up and share their ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. On the other hand, when people feel unsafe and fear punishment, retaliation, humiliation, discrimination, or alienation in response to expressing themselves—the workplace is psychologically unsafe.

Productivity, performance, and profitability are all in jeopardy when team members do not feel safe to speak freely.

To ensure psychological safety, employees must be comfortable voicing their opinions without fear of being judged. Teams develop a safe environment when a few ground rules are created as to how they interact with one another. These could be an example:

  • Do not interrupt one another.
  • Allow all ideas to be accepted equally and never judged.
  • Never place blame; encourage honesty.
  • Out of the box suggestions are encouraged and listened to.

Here are other ways managers and other company leaders can create and nurture a workplace that feels safe to everyone.

Show You Are Engaged

If your employees feel that you do not pay attention when they speak or that you do not value their thoughts and opinions, they will shut down. You need to show your team you’re engaged.

Demonstrate this engagement by being present during meetings. This means making eye contact and shutting off your laptop. It is easy to get distracted by emails and text messages during a meeting, but these small acts of disengagement can negatively impact your team’s psychological safety. Your attention cannot be divided.

Engagement also means listening to what others have to say. Practice active listening. Ask questions to make sure you are following and understand the other person’s ideas or opinions. By actively engaging, you are creating an environment where people feel encouraged and accepted when they speak up.

Treat Everyone with Respect

Regardless of your position in the company, leaders must be respectful, thoughtful, and considerate of all employees. When it comes to psychological safety, treat others as they would like to be treated.

Take the time to ask team members what they would prefer regarding frequency of check-ins, style of communication, and type of feedback. Supervisors should not be operating from the point of view of what they want, but rather of what others want.

Make sure employees understand what the guidelines are—what is considered respectful behavior and what is disrespectful behavior.

Show You Understand

When employees know you care enough to understand and consider their point of view, they experience psychological safety.

Demonstrate understanding by recapping what has been said. Use language like, “What I heard you say is . . . . Is that correct?” It shows you want to understand their perspective. It also gives your team members an opportunity to clarify if you misunderstood something they said.

You can also show understanding with your body language. Nod your head during discussions to acknowledge what an employee is saying. Lean forward to show engagement. Be aware of your facial expressions. If you look tired, bored, or unhappy, your employees will take notice. While you might not mean anything by it, employees may internalize the message you are sending with your face: “I don’t like this idea.”

Welcome Curiosity

Nurturing a sense of curiosity allows for a learning environment that is constructive, creative, and encourages team building. In some workplace settings, employees feel a sense of shame and humiliation when they are confronted with a question or situation and do not know the answer or solution. In that case, it is easier for them to hide and lie rather than be honest and forthright.

Being curious allows for a more agile and adaptive workforce. When the team arrives at obstacles, they overcome them more effectively and quickly.

Avoid Blaming

It is easy when something goes wrong to look for someone to blame. But to build and maintain psychological safety in the workplace, focus instead on solutions.

Instead of asking what happened and why, ask how can we make sure this goes better next time? The focus is on collaborative, shared language. How can we make sure this goes smoothly next time? It turns the responsibility into a group effort, rather than singling out an individual for a mistake.

Promote Healthy Dialog

Strive to create conditions for the healthiest form of disagreement at the company. Sharing ideas that are different should be encouraged and protected. Also, ensuring people debate the ideas and not the person helps keep the dialog respectful. Saying you disagree with a proposed solution is different from saying you disagree with a person. Encourage trust and mutual respect to create a safe, comfortable workplace.

Be Self-Aware

As leaders, build self-awareness on your team by first opening up and sharing how you work best, how you like to communicate, and how you like to be recognized. That should set everyone else’s mind at ease and allow you to encourage your team members to do the same.

Give Employees a Voice

Placing unreasonable restrictions on employees is a detriment to psychological safety, especially rules or infrastructure that limit communication. To overcome this, create open pathways to leadership, provide channels for feedback, and encourage conversation.

Upward communication from entry level employees on up to senior management can be a vital tool in helping companies earn and succeed. By speaking up to those who occupy positions to authorize actions, employees can help challenge the status quo, identify problems or opportunities for improvement, and offer ideas to boost their company’s productivity, reputation, and bottom line.

A Culture of Feeling Safe

To ensure a company’s culture is healthy, experts often point to three key ingredients:

  1. A strong mission and vision that help drive clarity for people in their roles
  2. Individual values align with company values
  3. There is the prospect of professional growth.

However, as demonstrated by Google’s study, psychological safety is also a key in ensuring you have a healthy company culture—one where people feel able to contribute their ideas and be themselves.

Alexandra Walsh is the vice president of Association Vision, a Washington, D.C.–area communications company. She has extensive experience in management positions with a range of organizations.


Read the Current Issue

you might also like