Psychological Safety: What It Is and Why Your Business Needs It

Psychological safety helps employees feel more engaged, productive, and energized.

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Build a positive culture and an environment of innovation by ensuring psychological safety

Psychological safety refers to “a shared belief held by members of a team that they are safe to take interpersonal risks.” When there is a strong sense of safety within a team, people feel more comfortable speaking up and experimenting as they don’t fear being judged or shamed for voicing their opinions.

Without a strong sense of psychological safety on your team, employees may feel defensive when they make a mistake, hide information from others, or fail to ask for help when they need it.

If you’re in the early stages of your business, keeping the concept of psychological safety at the forefront will help you create an environment of innovation while being intentional as you build out your culture.

Benefits of psychological safety

When your team feels comfortable being vulnerable in the workplace, they are more engaged, more productive, and have better energy coming to work.

Pixar is a well known example where having a strong culture of psychological safety has helped them continue to create new films and innovate over the decades. Ed Catmull, cofounder of Pixar, has said that part of building this culture included admitting his own fallibility, regularly and publicly, in order to help people be more comfortable with their own. He also made feedback (both positive and negative) a comfortable part of the organization to ensure that only the best possible version of their films made it to the box office.

Wells Fargo is an example of a company where a lack of psychological safety led to poor business tactics. In 2016, their culture highly focused on cross-selling a number of their products at whatever cost. This culture of results ignored the fact that their clients could not afford the products they were selling. Management failed to listen to this feedback, and employees did not feel safe pushing back on these unrealistic targets. The message came from top down to take orders and meet goals. This caused employees to cross ethical lines by creating millions of fraudulent accounts.

Three tips to get started today

Here are 3 tips we recommend to foster psychologically safe teams:

By admitting your own faults, you signal to your team that there won’t be negative repercussions for them if they come forward with a mistake of their own.

Admit your own mistakes: By admitting your own faults, you signal to your team that there won’t be negative repercussions for them if they come forward with a mistake of their own. Practice saying phrases like: “I dropped the ball on that one and I apologize for any negative impacts that had had on the team.”

Invite engagement from your team: By actively inviting people into a feedback conversation, you’ll show them that you care and that their opinion is valued. You can do this by:

  • Hosting open brainstorming sessions
  • Creating team meetings where you leave the space open to your team to voice their opinions, even if they are contradictory to yours
  • Sending out regular surveys to understand how people are feeling

Respond with a growth mindset: When conflicts, problems, and mistakes happen on your team, how you react will influence how safe people feel to share. Rather than getting angry in response to an employee’s mistake, have a conversation with them and ask:

  • “What were some key learnings and takeaways?”
  • “What influenced the process for you?”
  • “What will you do differently next time?”

For more tips, you can view this checklist put together by Google.

Watch out for these signs

If you’re managing a team or running a company, there are certain signs that your employees and teams may be experiencing a low level of psychological safety. Here are a few flags to look out for.

Group think: If you’re noticing in brainstorms or discussion that people shy away from expressing differing opinions or ideas, it may be an indication that they fear speaking up. When groupthink occurs, rather than challenging each other’s assumptions and providing diverse perspectives, people simply go along with whatever is being said.

This can have many negative repercussions and lead your business to overlook important details when making a decision.

Lack of feedback: If you notice there seems to be a lack of giving and receiving feedback, this could indicate that people are afraid to speak up. When people ask for feedback, it means they feel safe enough to want to improve and do better.

If people are hiding from it, it could indicate that they don’t feel safe enough to hear it or worry that receiving negative feedback will have a negative impact on their job security.

If you notice there seems to be a lack of giving and receiving feedback, this could indicate that people are afraid to speak up.

Why this matters right now

With people working remotely, building trust with employees you may have never met needs to be an intentional part of your practice as a business owner. The rising levels of anxiety and uncertainty brought on by COVID-19 only amplifies this need. Amy Edmondson says that during this time, “leaders must ask direct questions about what’s working and what isn’t, and they must engage in thoughtful discussions on how—in a rapidly evolving context—the vision for what we expect to happen is shifting accordingly.”

Leaders need to listen to their employees, and also make an effort to inject positivity into people’s everyday work life, whether that’s through gratitude exercises, Zoom parties, mindfulness training, or surprising and delighting their employees with a fun new perk.

To learn more about creative psychologically safe workplaces, check out the Amy Edmondson Ted Talk.

“The greatest mistake you can make in life is continually fearing that you’ll make one.”-Elbert Green Hubbard 

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