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How psychologically safe is your workplace? What do you think about staff making mistakes? And what is your view on employees being able to express their ideas? Do you believe mistakes are a good thing or are they to be avoided at all costs? Do you really listen to your employees or do you sweep their ideas under the carpet?
All of this and more is relevant to business culture and how psychologically safe employees feel when they are at work. What is becoming increasingly clear is that without psychological safety in the workplace, it’s hard for employees to be at their best.
How psychologically safe employees feel when they are at work has implications for innovation, team interactions, productivity and ultimately business success. Global business coach, Dominic Monkhouse says: ‘Psychological safety is a must for any growing business. As the managing director of three fast-growing businesses, I’ve seen it with my own eyes. There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s a big factor in successful scale-ups.’
What is psychological safety and why is it important?
The concept of psychological safety in the workplace was first identified by organisational behavioural scientist, Amy Edmondson in 1999 in her paper entitled: ‘Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams’. Her research found that companies with a trusting workplace performed better.
In an interview with Curt Nickisch of HBR, she elaborates on psychological safety: ‘The term implies to people a sense of coziness … and that’s not what it’s really about. What it’s about is candour; what it’s about is being direct, taking risks, being willing to say, “I screwed that up.” Being willing to ask for help when you’re in over your head.’
Feeling safe, secure and being able to work without the fear of negative consequences, even when you make a mistake, relies on feeling psychologically safe. It means people are comfortable being themselves. In psychologically safe workplaces, diversity is respected and personal risk-taking is encouraged. Above all, team members respect each other and feel accepted. The feeling is like taking a leap and knowing you’ll be caught.
Why psychological safety in the workplace is important
Humiliation, blame, criticism and bullying create workplaces where employees are filled with fear. This kind of psychologically unsafe environment doesn’t get the best out of people. Workers are too busy watching their own backs and frightened of putting a foot wrong to make suggestions and help each other out. They dare not share ideas for fear of being shut down.
When we experience a lack of trust, respect or conflict we feel stressed. When we feel stressed our brain triggers hormones to support a fight-or-flight response. Continually being in that state is bad for our health. This state also has a negative impact on our ability to think strategically. It stifles creativity and teamwork, and that isn’t good for business.
A psychologically safe workplace is the opposite. In an environment where people are encouraged to understand each other’s points of view, understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses, support each other, and feel confident to make suggestions and offer ideas, teams flourish. Mistakes (essential for innovation) are made, chewed over and learned from.
Perhaps the biggest study supporting the importance of psychological safety in the workplace is Google’s project Aristotle, which focused on how to build the perfect team. The study reviewed half a century of academic studies on how teams worked and looked at hundreds of Google’s own teams to try and unlock the key as to why some teams soared and others failed.
Finding patterns proved difficult, because not all successful teams behaved in the same ways. Eventually, extensive research found that particular norms, such as clear goals and a culture of dependability, were vital for team success. Above all else it was found that psychological safety was critical to making a team work.
How to foster psychological safety at work
Creating a fearless environment isn’t easy. It takes effort and hard work to build a trusting culture. Here are four simple ways to start building a more psychologically safe workplace:
1. Encourage radical candour
Radical candour is a new management philosophy based on two approaches – caring personally and challenging directly. The radical candour framework is used to guide conversations and not fall into the trap of supporting behaviours that are damaging to teams.
According to the radical candour framework, damaging behaviours include ruinous empathy, manipulative insincerity, and obnoxious aggression.
Ruinous empathy describes what happens when you care but don’t challenge or provide specific feedback. It happens when a person is too worried about hurting another’s feelings. Manipulative insincerity describes behaviour that is back-stabbing, passive-aggressive or two-faced. Obnoxious aggression is brutal honesty without any regard for a person’s feelings, or praise that is poorly delivered and insincere.
Radical candour is based on a culture of feedback. It is about being honest, but delivering feedback with respect and care.
2. Promote respect
People don’t always agree with each other, but discussion is vitally important in business. Encouraging mutual respect helps to improve communication and reduce workplace conflict and stress. Reducing pettiness in the workplace and encouraging respect helps to build psychological safety. The best way to promote respect at work is to ‘walk the walk.’
3. Welcome curiosity
Part of psychological safety is being able to express oneself. Encouraging staff to be curious and ask questions is where real learning happens. Curiosity is vital to business performance. Ask for feedback from employees and encourage them to ask questions. Start by asking: ‘What can we do better?’
4. Acknowledge ideas and the sharing of mistakes
Things do not always go to plan and making mistakes does not mean you are a failure. Mistakes offer helpful learnings and are often the source of major innovations in business. In psychologically safe environments, employees feel they can make a mistake and won’t be penalised for it.
A manager promoting psychological safety will always state problems as observational facts in neutral language and engage with the team to explore the problem, ask for solutions and offer support. Encourage your team to share and discuss problems, errors and failures, and to ask for help.
Dennis Relojo-Howell is the founder of Psychreg. He writes for the American Psychological Association and has a weekly column for Free Malaysia Today.
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