How Can Leaders Promote A Culture Of Psychological Safety At Work?

In traditional corporate settings, employees are often reluctant to speak their minds for fear of being reprimanded, singled out, or excluded by colleagues. This kind of atmosphere is not conducive to growth, creativity, and development. Creating psychological safety at work means empowering your people to share fresh ideas and brainstorm. 

If there is a lack of psychological safety in the workplace, employees will feel its effects on their mental health. After all, there is a close and well-established link between psychological safety and broader mental health. A study conducted by MetLife found that 41% of employees regularly feel stressed, burned out, or depressed at work. This shows that organizations need to double their efforts in protecting psychological safety at work.

Making sure that employees are empowered to be physically and mentally healthy is one of the responsibilities of an employer. Read on to better understand psychological safety, the negative impacts of lacking psychological safety, and how to build a culture of psychological safety.

What Is Psychological Safety In The Workplace?

Psychological safety at work refers to the ability to express and employ oneself without fear of repercussions for one’s self-image, position, or job. It can be characterized as a shared conviction that the team is a safe place to take interpersonal risks.

Mental health is intrinsically linked to psychological safety and has a significant impact on individual performance. A study by MetLife shows that 86% of employees who rate their mental health as good are productive at work. Unfortunately, according to Aetna International, 87% of workers are worried that stress could affect their ability to work, but only 60% of employees have ever talked about their mental health with a manager or co-worker.

A two-year study conducted by Google on team performance revealed that the highest-performing teams have one thing in common: psychological safety. Psychological safety at work enables mild risk-taking, openness, innovation, and sticking your neck out without fear. This kind of open workplace behavior will result in business breakthroughs and profitable ideas. Unfortunately, fewer than half of people diagnosed with mental health problems have opted to tell their immediate supervisor about it.

Types of Psychological Safety at Work

Dr. Timothy Clark, the author of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, defines the four stages of psychological safety as Inclusion Safety, Learner Safety, Contributor Safety, and Challenger Safety. Only with these four established can employees feel free to make important contributions and challenge the status quo. This is why leaders should make sure that their employees’ mental health needs are taken care of.

Psychological safety at work shows up in many ways, such as:

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

A study conducted by the University of Michigan found that people hired for ‘diversity purposes’ were sometimes seen as less qualified. As a result, employers have increasingly recognized that symbolically hiring a diverse range of people just isn’t enough. Inclusion is just as important. When organizations encourage workplace equality, they gain the competitive advantage of employing varied personnel.

Workplace equity is all about giving employees a sense of empowerment and leveling the playing field for all employees. Ensuring psychological safety through inclusion satisfies the human need for connection and belonging. This allows employees to be themselves, and feel accepted.

Learning Safely

A workplace that fosters a safe learning environment will satisfy the need to grow and learn. If employees feel psychologically safe, they will be comfortable exchanging information, asking questions, as well as providing and receiving feedback. There will be no fear of harassment or being bullied since the culture of psychological safety at work will encourage the free sharing of knowledge and opinion.

Amy C. Edmonson, in her book The Fearless Organization, writes that:

“Speaking up is only the first step. The true test is how leaders respond when people actually do speak up. Stage setting and inviting participation indeed build psychological safety. But if a boss responds with anger or disdain as soon as someone steps forward to speak up about a problem, the safety will quickly evaporate. A productive response must be appreciative, respectful, and offer a path forward.”

Freedom to Challenge The Status Quo

To stay ahead of the competition in challenging the status quo is very important. However, if employees lack psychological safety at work, experimenting with new techniques, encouraging new ideas, and having an open-minded attitude about change may not come as easy as you would have wanted.

Challenging the status quo means that employees can make bold choices and courageous decisions. If leaders wish to improve quality, reduce expenses, or increase efficiency, they must encourage employees to think outside the box to identify innovative and bold ideas without fear of ridicule. If managers wish to empower their staff, they must first develop the confidence and abilities of employees to take the initiative.

Autonomy With Guidance

Allowing people to work independently helps them perform to the best of their ability. This does not mean working in isolation or letting employees do whatever they want, whenever they want. An autonomous workplace is built on trust, respect, dependability, and honesty.

According to an article published by the University of Georgia, micromanagement can negatively impact teams, initiatives, organizations, and long-awaited impact. A study by the University of Birmingham also found that employees who have higher levels of autonomy at work reported a greater sense of well-being and job satisfaction.

Employees find micromanaging uncomfortable. When highly trained and valuable employees under a micromanager, they are more likely to leave. They understand their self-worth, so excessive, severe evaluation of their work will make them feel toxic and eventually leave the company.

How Can Leaders Build A Culture Of Psychological Safety?

Creating a workplace culture of psychological safety is a key part of promoting positive mental health amongst employees. As Deloitte lays out, work and life, health, safety, and well-being are inseparable.

When a workplace is characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect, members feel free to collaborate, and they feel safe taking risks. This empowers them and enables them to discover great ideas and implement innovations. Leaders of organizations must take an active role in ensuring psychological safety in the workplace. They can help build a culture of psychological safety by:

Work to Eliminate the Stigma Around Mental Health

Leaders must be aware of the stigma around mental health. The negative stereotypes surrounding mental health issues are struggles that persist both in and out of the workplace. Managers must be vigilant in recognizing and preventing stigma from permeating the workplace.

It is also a great idea to conduct webinars, talks, or workshops that can educate your employees about mental health. By doing these information drives, leaders can increase psychological safety in the workplace by eliminating stigma through education.

Understand All Employee Perspectives

A psychologically safe workplace begins with a feeling of belonging. Connecting with your employees is not just talking about work or checking on a certain project’s progress; it is also about checking in with each other.

If an employee is struggling with their KPI or metrics, speak with that employee first before reprimanding them. They may be struggling with some issues that are affecting their performance. An act of compassion will go a long way for employees suffering from mental health concerns. By encouraging psychological safety at work, employees will feel more comfortable speaking up and sharing their struggles.

Stop Blaming People for Their Mistakes

Psychological safety at work can begin by stopping the “blame culture”. Blame culture refers to a situation where employees are constantly singled out, chastised, or criticized. Everybody commits mistakes and calling out employees, especially in public, is not a healthy way of leading a team.

When a workplace begins to feel suffocating or oppressive, underperformance quickly follows. That is why it is the role of leaders to make sure that this does not happen by avoiding passing blame to employees. If an employee makes a mistake, explain to them why it is wrong and make sure that they understand why they are wrong. Transparent communication will produce better results than simply blaming employees for their faults.

Make Decisions as a Team

A manager’s day-to-day activity typically revolves around decision-making. Their everyday decisions have a direct impact on the success of the company, whether they are allocating budgets, delegating work, or implementing a new business strategy. However, a study shows that inclusive teams make better decisions up to 87% of the time. This means that it is a good idea to include the team in every decision.

Remember, you are in this together so including them every step of the way will make the team stronger and more efficient. Make sure to take their opinions into account and never brush them off. This is especially true for decisions that will drastically change the work environment. By doing so you are fostering a strong environment of psychological safety at work.

Be Open To Feedback

Managers, like employees, require feedback. After all, the manager-employee relationship is a two-way street. Unfortunately, employees are rarely given the opportunity to communicate their feedback to their bosses, especially if they don’t feel any psychological safety at work.

Another reason for a lack of open feedback is that leaders are always showered with over the top flattery and condescending opinions. This is why employees are reluctant to share their honest opinions and feedback. To make sure that employees feel safe in voicing their opinions, leaders should be open in listening to feedback whether it is positive or negative.

Ensure Employee Recognition

Employee recognition is important, since it will make employees feel that they are valued members of the organization, and their contributions are not taken for granted. Recognized and appreciated employees will develop a sense of pride which will drive them to perform to the best of their abilities.

Unfortunately, a survey found that 82% of American professionals feel that they aren’t adequately recognized for their contribution. A simple pat on the back for a job well done, or a personalized thank you message will do wonders for an employee’s morale.

Criticism is Not Coaching

Many managers confuse criticism with coaching. Pointing out flaws; repeatedly warning of impending failure if certain metrics are not met; and emphasizing the negative results rather than successes. This kind of practice is upsetting and discouraging for employees.

That is why managers should avoid damaging criticism, but instead put more effort into nurturing coaching sessions. Psychological safety at work starts with meaningful conversation and not with fault-finding or judgment. Unlike criticism, coaching offers value to people, who then add value to their organizations by being motivated to their best.

Focus On Trust

Leaders must foster a trusting workplace environment. Managers need to show employees that there are no walls between the company and its workers, and the workplace is a safe space. In high-performing teams, trust is very important. Remember, smart, capable people like to be left alone to complete their tasks.

Trust in your employee’s skills and expect them to succeed and not fail. By having this positive expectation, your employees will feel empowered to take bold steps and reach their full potential. Trust is very important in any relationship, and trust between managers and employees is vital in keeping a healthy working environment.

All Employees Deserve a Psychologically Safe Workplace

Companies need to understand that the mental health of their employees is a priority. Making the workplace a psychologically safe space is also the key to boosting mental health and keeping employees healthy to be the best version of themselves. To do this, management should start taking mental health issues seriously and address stigma head-on.

Promoting psychological safety at work is not just letting employees voice their thoughts, and brainstorm freely; it is also fostering a culture in which a minor blunder or momentary lapse of judgment is not considered a big deal, where actual mistakes are owned and corrected, and where the next out-of-the-box idea could be the next big thing.

Learn more about Aduro, and how we can help you promote psychological safety at work in a recent webinar.