What is psychological safety in the workplace?

Providing a tangible sense of psychological safety in your workplace is key to helping your employees feel comfortable and productive in the office.

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Many new employees feel a bit nervous on their first day. They may have come from a toxic work environment or are starting their first job and are unsure what to expect.

Business owners and managers are responsible for providing psychological safety for everyone who joins their workforce. Doing so benefits their well-being and your bottom line. Here’s what to know.

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety includes providing confidence through your words and actions. You should encourage employees to ask questions, share ideas, take risks and admit mistakes.

Open communication and trial-and-error are the keys to innovation, but workers must feel safe and have a positive relationship with you and other team members. There are ways to facilitate these feelings in your employees.

Harvard professor and researcher Amy Edmondson popularised the idea of workplace psychological safety in 1999, stemming from her interest in data that showed communicative workplaces reported more errors. There weren't necessarily more incidents, but the employees in those positive environments didn't try to hide their mistakes.

Google chose to explore the concept further more than a decade later with Project Aristotle, which studied 180 teams over two years. Researchers conducted more than 200 interviews and analysed 250 attributes. While they could not provide an exact algorithm for creating a successful team, it established that psychological safety was crucial.

As of 2023, 84% of employees value psychological safety in the office. It is the second most-valued workplace trait, only topped by regular pay raises.

“Psychological safety is anchored in high standard and low interpersonal threat,” says Brigid Lyn from the Neuroscience Institute. “Psych safety is a force multiplier that can enhance already high-performing teams.

Benefits of creating psychological safety

Improving your team’s psychological safety could lead to many benefits. Here are some of the top enhancements companies can see from implementation.

Improved morale

Employees are more likely to become and stay happy at work when you provide psychological safety. Speaking their mind is crucial to satisfaction in their positions.

Feeling seen and heard provides value and security, allowing for more openness and enjoyment at work and creating a better atmosphere.

Greater productivity

Employees who can openly communicate with everyone are likelier to ask questions and mention concerns before things worsen. Workers who are confident in expressing themselves and know you take them seriously can complete projects faster with fewer errors.

Increased creativity

A relaxed office environment can make room for more creative solutions and project ideas. Employees who are pressured to get things done perfectly or fear discipline from failure are less likely to take risks that could greatly benefit the company.

Creative minds are an asset to any operation, but an intimidating presence or improper communication can stifle them. Focusing on psychological safety can encourage them to make suggestions and decisions that help your company stand out.

Better resilience

Psychological safety leads to employees being more likely to trust your leadership. A recent study found that trust in senior leadership is a critical factor in workers’ resilience. Handling challenging and unexpected situations is a valuable asset to any company. Resilient employees are also better able to cope when they begin feeling symptoms of burnout.

More innovation

Innovators can recognise the potential for improvement and use logic, creativity and reason to develop solutions. Workers in a psychologically unsafe environment are less likely to speak up when they see an opportunity for the company to innovate and become more efficient.

In a recent interview, Edmondson said, “If we aren't open and candid and willing to take interpersonal risks, our organisations will face much bigger risks.”

How to create psychological safety at your company

You can turn your business into a psychologically safe space for your workers in many ways, including the following:

  • Clearly set expectations: New employees should understand their responsibilities from day one and be offered training and other educational opportunities. You don’t have to be stern or scary to communicate your point. Just be specific.
  • Admit your faults: Your workers are less likely to admit mistakes if you don’t confess your own. Everyone is fallible, regardless of where they are on the totem pole. Talking about your errors and how you fixed them opens the door for better communication among everyone.
  • Encourage calculated risk-taking: Taking a chance on a new idea or tool can be beneficial. Encourage employees to think outside the box and take calculated risks.
  • Accept new ideas: Your workers might not realise it’s OK to make suggestions unless you tell them. They should trust but not fear your leadership. Ask for input on projects or policies and encourage them to submit their edits or ideas. Implement good suggestions to show you mean what you say and are happy to have their input.
  • Stay encouraging: Mistakes are frustrating and employees often try to cover them up, but this blocks communication and often worsens the situation. Taking a breath before responding to a problem can go a long way in helping you approach the employee in a calm, helpful and encouraging manner. An effective response will encourage others to admit when they made a mistake or have a concern.

Knowing the importance of psychological safety

Your employees make your business and deserve a healthy environment to work and thrive in. Psychological safety in the office can create a happier, more productive workforce that encourages people to stay and thrive.

Mia Barnes - Founder and Editor-In-Chief of Body+Mind Magazine

Mia Barnes is a freelance writer and researcher with over 3 years of experience in the field. With a specialization in workplace wellness, financial well-being, human factors, and ergonomics, her articles aim to educate and empower readers, providing them with practical tips and insights to enhance their overall well-being in various aspects of their lives. Mia is also the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of the online publication, Body+Mind magazine.

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