Psychological safety at work can be defined as an environment where employees feel comfortable and empowered to engage in work processes, without fear of negative repercussion, comments, and behaviors from others including the management. The employees hold beliefs that they can ask questions, admit their mistakes, and voice their concerns openly, without being met with embarrassment, humiliation, rejection, or punishment. They feel confident speaking up, sharing their thoughts, opinions, and ideas.
Psychological safety includes the values and behaviors of inclusion, diversity, and agility, with an emphasis on the ability to fully leverage the talent and the knowledge of each team member. Studies on psychological safety point to wide-ranging benefits, including increased confidence, creativity, trust and productivity. Organizations providing psychological safety are characterized by maintaining significant resilience levels, facilitating workers in problematic situations, often not only helping them cope with arising issues, but also predicting their occurrence. They are ready to use needed resources and tools, find suitable and effective ways to recover from problems and prevent them in the future, applying obtained feedback and learning from mistakes.
Leaders that create psychological safety, model behaviors of change and innovation among team members, identify opportunities and potential threats to a team, take personal risks to enact change, show confidence and sensibility in decision-making processes. They act in accordance with ethical values, demonstrating appropriate conduct themselves and encouraging such behaviors in the employees. Furthermore, psychological safety is obtained by leader inclusiveness, valuing diversity and uniqueness of each team member, appreciating their perspectives and ideas, taking it into consideration in ongoing processes. There are several ways to achieve psychological safety at work, all significantly contributing to the successful outcomes.
Six strategies to create psychological safety in the workplace
1. Authentic and transparent engagement
One of the most effective ways for organizations to enhance psychological safety is to show authentic and transparent engagement. Providing employees with clear and honest answers to their concerns and questions, being genuine about it will lead to establishment of trust, which is a crucial element of a safe and comfortable environment. Employees need to be listened to, heard, and acknowledged, in order to feel valued and managers’ transparent behaviors can facilitate it. The transparency can be implemented in several forms including topics such as performance feedback, organizational politics, promotions, layoffs, and budgets. It is important to be precise and mindful about the information that is shared, setting expectations and commitments that are accurate and realistic. Additionally, adhering to the commitments will help employees trust you and be more open with you.
The need of belongingness and togetherness contribute to psychological safety at work. Employees having a sense of community, building meaningful relationships with others will feel secure, comfortable, and important. Leaders and managers should promote inclusivity and diversity, supporting each team member in their ideas and strengths contributing to their professional and personal development. Managers must actively listen, show empathy and, understanding through verbal and non-verbal communication by using calm and respectful tone of voice, engaging in eye contact, expressing welcoming and open body posture and gesticulation. Management can apply systems that allow the workers to share their knowledge, thoughts, and concerns at an open forum, surrounded by empathetic, encouraging, and considerate atmosphere. Rewarding employees for their efforts, proposed ideas, and hard work should also be implemented.
3. Space for autonomy and freedom
One of the most powerful tools to psychologically safe environment is to provide space for autonomy and freedom for the employees, showing your trust and confidence in their abilities and job performance. Allowing workers to think, solve and cope with their own challenges, come to their own conclusions without the advice of managers, enhances their capabilities and self-esteem levels. Leaders should refrain from rushing in to fix issues of the employees right away, providing them with time and opportunity to show their independence, prove that they are able, competent, and effective in overcoming obstacles on their own. In cases when given time and space do not result in successful problem solving, managers can considerately offer their assistance and if needed help employees work through some difficulties.
4. Openness to feedback
Leaders, who are open to feedback model healthy communication in the workplace, enhancing employees’ views and opinions, making them feel important and contributing to the ongoing processes. Knowing what works well and what could be improved in the organization provides clearer vision, simplifying processes, leading to more effective job performance and greater levels of mutual trust. Directly asking workers of their thoughts, reflections, opinions will assist in considering various and unique viewpoints, which can contribute to better organization functioning including specific projects and policies. Often, feedback and workers’ internal processes might need more time to be formulated and voiced, thus it is important to provide appropriate space for it by pausing, waiting, and encouraging input, without any pressure and rush.
5. Normalize mistakes
Another important aspect to psychological safety in the workplace is creating a culture where mistakes are normalized and accepted, perceiving them as an essential part of development and growth. Leaders should acknowledge and model this notion to the employees, be transparent and open about their own mistakes, showing that progress always comes with some risk. Additionally, despite some mistakes’ occurrence managers must always appreciate and support the employees’ efforts, energy, and resources put into work, conveying the message of learning through setbacks. Leaders can manifest these behaviors by owning up the mistakes they made, celebrating failures as a part of a learning process and personal development. Moreover, initiating and encouraging conversations with employees about the process, what did not work out as expected and what they have learned from the experience can facilitate mistake normalization. It will also help team members see that they will not be punished for mistakes, which will make them feel more comfortable speaking up and taking risks.
Approaching setbacks and problematic behaviors from a curious perspective, showing collaborative, neutral mindset with an emphasis on mutually agreed solutions with also create more comfortable and safe space, assisting in solving arising issues as a team. This attitude will remove any defensiveness and disengagement that could occur when approached by blame and judgment. Normalization of mistakes can also be performed by encouraging employees to use positive and affirmative language, that can motivate them to succeed. Simple word changes, replacing ‘’can’t’’ with ‘’have not yet’’ or ‘’challenge’’, ‘’difficulty’’ with ‘’opportunity’’ can switch team members’ attitudes and mindsets, making them more positive and empowering, providing beneficial long-term outcomes of speaking up and expressing oneself without fear.
6. Show appreciation
Creating psychological safety in the workplace cannot be achieved without leaders’ acts of care and appreciation. Showing genuine support, empathy, valuing the employees as human beings not only team members will contribute to meaningful work relationships and subsequently increased well-being. It is important to establish an environment where employees, their ideas and contributions feel welcome, and their insights are appreciated. Leaders should always thank employees for their opinions and viewpoints, irrespectively of their actual usage and application, refraining from any judgement, remaining open and curious. Additionally, managers should adapt into practice regular checking in with their team members, demonstrating interest, concern, and care. This simple action will make employees feel more comfortable and safe speaking up, they will recognize their value and importance in the organization. Furthermore, paying attention to workers’ efforts, actions, celebrating their accomplishments and successes, complimenting, and praising various ideas and contributions plays a significant role, positively impacting employee’s confidence and self-esteem levels.
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