Workers perform better when they feel able to contribute, challenge, and make mistakes. For this to happen though, organizations must create a culture of psychological safety at work. This article outlines how to identify signs of psychological danger and suggests ways to improve.
If you’ve followed employee satisfaction research recently, you’ll know there is room for improvement in how people feel about work.
According to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace report, in 2022, only 21% of workers felt engaged by their organization and worker stress is at an all-time high.
The “Great Resignation” saw people leave jobs – or the workforce entirely – in record numbers. And recent months have seen labor-withdrawing trends such as “quiet quitting,” “acting your wage,” and, “bare minimum Monday”.
It’s common to blame this on the pandemic, but dissatisfaction is also embedded in organizations not creating company cultures people want to join.
What does drive a great company culture? Research shows that creating psychological safety at work is a top factor.
What is psychological safety?
Psychological safety exists when members of a team feel it is safe to contribute and be authentic without fear of negative consequences.
In the workplace, this may present in several ways, from regularly sharing ideas in meetings to whistleblowing against discrimination.
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If people are worried about being fired or shamed for asking questions, they contribute less. With less dialogue, discussions become dominated by those who already have power.
In a diverse workplace with a high degree of psychological safety, people feel comfortable sharing their ideas and concerns. This is true even if their opinions differ from received wisdom and traditional ways of doing things.
The most well-known research in this area comes from Dr. Amy Edmondson, whose 2018 book, The Fearless Organization, is the major work on improving organizational performance by creating a culture of safety. Dr. Edmondson defines psychological safety as:
“The belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”
Having conducted decades of organizational research, Dr. Edmondson also claims that open and inclusive workplaces have greater innovation, engagement, and staff retention.
The value of a workforce that questions and challenges
In 2015, Google shared the results of a long-term study on the effectiveness of its teams. The company conducted over 200 interviews and found that psychological safety at work is the biggest factor behind successful outcomes.
Other data bears this out. Gallup research shows that in organizations where six in 10 employees feel their opinions count, there could be a 27% reduction in staff turnover and a 12% increase in productivity.
The takeaway? Whether it’s to increase employee engagement, decrease turnover, or create a better atmosphere, you must focus on psychological safety.
10 signs of low psychological safety at work
Bullying bosses, layoffs by email, and people being fired through social media are all recent examples of work cultures where it is impossible for employees to speak their minds.
What other red flags should you look for in your workplace?
- There are no formal feedback loops. A workplace with no pulse surveys may be one where employees are not being listened to in structured, actionable ways.
- You work in a hybrid workplace but senior leaders refuse to make allowances for hybrid and remote workers. This might include not broadcasting all-hands meetings through video.
- Recognition and rewards are only given to people in certain locations or roles. This can cause disengagement among others, including frontline workers who feel undervalued.
- The same voices dominate meetings and there are no techniques to solicit feedback and input from all team members.
- A low level of failure. This sounds counterintuitive but research suggests that groups who succeed a lot should also fail frequently. A low incidence of failure may be because teams are uncomfortable reporting it or management are not listening.
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- Managers aren’t supported to develop their communication skills. They may also not be required to hold regular one-to-ones, performance reviews, and goal-setting sessions with their direct reports.
- Learning and development is discouraged.
- There are no communication channels accessible to all. People start to question their value if the CEO is the only person able to post blogs on the intranet.
- Information is restricted and people don’t have access to things like HR policies and reporting procedures.
- Everyone has left the chat. Platforms such as MS Teams and Slack are so common now that a complete lack of input on group chats may signal people feel uncomfortable contributing.
What can you do to improve outcomes for employees?
If some or all these points ring true, your workplace may need to improve the level of psychological safety on offer.
What’s also critical to remember when judging the presence or absence of safety is that it is highly personal. Even if you feel comfortable speaking up, others may not.
There are several aggravating factors to bear in mind, including gender, race, and ability.
For example, reporting on the gender pay gap shows that women have less access to senior positions and are paid worse than men. As a result, they may have less opportunities to make their voices heard in important meetings.
This gap grows even wider when intersectional identities are factored in, and people are further alienated because of race or sexuality.
Those individuals may find it even more challenging to speak up and feel they have a right to reply.
Ultimately, however, there is only one true test, and that’s whether employees feel safe or not. So, how can you measure psychological safety?
Measuring psychological safety in the workplace
If you have access to an anonymous pulse survey tool within your intranet (third-party apps can also perform this via email or web browser), you can create a simple Likert scale poll to ascertain how people feel.
These seven questions and statements are based on the original research in which Amy Edmondson identified her version of the concept.
- My mistakes are held against me unfairly.
- Are members of this team able to bring up problems and raise issues?
- Have members of your team rejected others for being different?
- I feel I can take risks in this team.
- I feel comfortable asking other team members for help.
- Would anyone on the team act in a way that deliberately undermined your work?
- My unique skills and talents are valued and well utilized within the team.
A five-point Likert scale for this survey may range from Strongly Disagree to Strongly Agree, which can provide a more nuanced response than a simple yes/no choice.
It can also help to prioritize which areas are better or worse and which should receive more focus.
Pulse surveys best practices
To encourage greater engagement and fairness, conduct the polls at the same time. Choosing a moment when everyone is working and not involved in meetings or dealing with customers will help to provide an equal opportunity to participate.
Sending surveys in the middle of the night to workers in other countries may give them a sense that their needs are not understood after all.
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It is good practice to explain the concept of psychological safety, outline why you are measuring people’s responses, and show what the intended outcomes will be.
You can then add up and anonymize the scores for each question. This will give an important platform to make positive changes where they are needed.
That’s when you can move to the next stage.
3 ways to create greater psychological safety in the workplace
What you can do to effect change will depend on the size of your organization and the available resources.
If you have team members who can actively support any changes you want to make, here is a useful article for large enterprises on how Elsevier instituted training and peer-to-peer initiatives for 8000 employees.
If you’re not able to run offsite meetings and follow-up regularly though, how can you improve the sense of psychological safety your colleagues feel?
There are three things that leaders, managers, and communicators can all do to make positive improvements in the way organizations connect with employees.
In her TEDx talk on building a psychologically safe workplace, Dr Edmondson offers three ways organizations can change:
1. Create a culture that acknowledges fallibility and invites participation
Communicators and senior leaders have a platform they can use to model positive behavior.
This includes accepting that you don’t know all the answers, demonstrating humility, and inviting feedback and participation regularly.
It is often easier and faster to make statements than to ask questions. We don’t always want a lot of comments on our recent projects, so many of us resort to sending out emails or conducting meetings to simply give information without asking for feedback or input. This one-way communication can shut down dialogue, however, and make it harder for other employees to ask questions that are important to them.
When you accept in an email, blog, or video update that you don’t know all the answers though, but that you have a learning mindset and are curious what others think, you also open a space for other people to do the same thing in their own projects. Admitting you don’t know everything – or that you made a mistake – makes it easier for others to ask questions and be fallible too.
Small changes you could make include posting information on how to ask great questions, offering tips on active listening, and making changes to meeting formats so that Q&A is always possible.
2. Frame everyone’s work as meaningful
The goal of creating a psychologically safe workplace is to make everyone feel they have enough of a stake in the enterprise that they want to ask questions and challenge things they see as incorrect.
If people are disengaged and disinterested, they can become apathetic and stop participating.
So, it’s important to frame organizational communications in a way that touches everyone. When you speak to the workforce about a company merger or the launch of a new product, tell the story in a way that makes it clear that everyone has an important role.
By calling attention to challenges or opportunities that involve everyone, you can create a greater sense of engagement with a shared objective. This focus on interdependence makes it clear why everyone matters, which helps people to believe their voices matter too.
3. Embrace the feedback
Asking for feedback and then ignoring it (or reacting negatively) is arguably worse than not asking in the first place.
If you’ve taken the time to ask people whether they feel psychologically safe, or if you’ve done employee surveys on other issues, don’t forget to follow up publicly and transparently.
Acknowledge the range of feedback, be genuinely appreciative for the learning opportunity, and then outline what you’re going to do.
When people don’t see any point in contributing, they stop. When they feel that their points have been considered and actioned, however, even if they don’t get the immediate response they wanted, they are encouraged to continue engaging productively.
It’s more than a wellness issue
Although being comfortable asking questions or giving feedback may have benefits for individual mental health and wellness, it goes beyond that.
A workplace where people feel empowered and encouraged to make suggestions or voice concerns can also inspire innovation and prevent malfeasance.
Creating such a culture won’t happen without effort though, and it may depend on people changing and structures being radically changed. All of this begins with listening and communicating productively.