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Have you felt like you could not speak up in an online work meeting during the Covid pandemic? That your ideas or concerns wouldn’t be a welcome interruption? Or maybe you’ve resisted asking challenging questions because you were worried that your manager or colleagues would hold this against you, or view your input as inconvenient when there were so many other pressing matters? If this sounds familiar, then it probably means that you lacked psychological safety at work and, unfortunately, you are not alone.
Covid and work psychological safety
A 2015 survey found that only 13% of employees are engaged at work worldwide, and are thus not developing and contributing to the extent that they could. Although employees may be disengaged for a variety of reasons, working in an environment where you don’t feel comfortable being yourself or where you worry you will be punished for taking risks is bound to affect your wellbeing and make you less likely to want to contribute to the success of the organization.
With the Covid pandemic, we know that people have been working remotely for the most part. Unfortunately, despite its various benefits, this situation has made it even more difficult for people to speak up, especially women who sometimes report feeling overlooked or ignored during video meetings. Of course, there’s also a cultural element, in that people from so-called Western countries tend to be more vocal, online and in-person, and it has been shown that psychological safety is also consistently reduced for diverse and underrepresented populations.
Unfortunately, the Covid pandemic also enabled some employers to adopt problematic practices, such as implementing surveillance tools to monitor their employees working from home, or calling for more meetings than necessary in order to micro-manage their progress. These practices undoubtedly served to deplete the trust and mutual respect that are core elements of psychological safety at work.
Listening to employees
And yet, we know that fostering an environment where people are trusted and feel that their opinions can make a difference has never been more important. Examples of workplaces where a lack of psychological safety contributed to disastrous consequences include the now infamous Theranos and WeWork, to name just two recent cautionary tales. Really listening to employees (and not simply clients or end-users) is given short shrift these days in many workplaces.
Although they risk losing real talent and impacting the productivity and morale of their organizations (or worst), supervisors and managers are often reluctant to engage in real consultation (regular and in-depth engagement and culture surveys, active listening opportunities, specific slots in meetings…). It’s as if they would prefer to ignore what they do not wish to hear, and hope any problem or complaint will simply disappear. However, this mindset can only lead to issues for the workplace down the line, with protectionist and defensive behaviours and employee attrition being just some of many possible consequences. A manager should instead address problems head-on, stating these as ‘observational facts in neutral language’, and seek to find solutions together with their colleagues.
In a study that surveyed 131 salaried workers in Singapore to assess the impact of Covid on their experience of psychological safety, open communication and listening to employee feedback and concerns were highlighted as critical factors in maintaining psychological safety during this period of crisis when most people worked from home.
Post-pandemic, why should employers take psychological safety into account? According to the research literature, a psychologically safe work environment is one in which employees feel safe to voice ideas, willingly seek and provide honest feedback, collaborate, and are able to take risks and to experiment. It has been shown that psychological safety is linked to high-performing teams, reduces employee errors, leads to a more inclusive culture, and enhances creativity, safety, and learning in organisations. Naturally, all of this also contributes to a healthier bottom line.
You may wonder, however, what’s the risk for employees? To some extent, working in a psychologically safe environment means that we can be more vulnerable. It takes courage to question decisions made, to suggest a new way of working, to ask for help, or to admit to making a mistake. It can be risky to do this and one might feel rather exposed. However, when our vulnerability is welcomed and rewarded, we are more likely to engage and to contribute to the organisation in meaningful ways. We feel valued and more willing to put in effort and to dedicate our time to adding value to the business.
According to Kate Neilson from the Australian HR Institute, offering employees a psychologically safe workplace is a basic expectation, but employers should be actively looking to go beyond this and provide an optimal psychological environment in which people can thrive. The best employees are motivated, and want to learn and grow. They enjoy a challenge, having a sense of mastery and purpose, and being recognised for their hard work and valuable input. When they feel psychologically safe, they are also more likely to tap into their creative potential and will experience increased job satisfaction.
Psychological safety was important prior to the Covid pandemic, but the crisis highlighted new ways that it could be threatened at work. Over the next few years it will be interesting to see how employers choose to tackle this problem.
Séverine Hubscher-Davidson, PhD is an academic and freelance writer based in Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire.
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