Most companies get an ‘A’ for keeping their employees safe – We’ve seen remote work, strict cleaning protocols, temperature checks, and so on — all worthwhile endeavors.
But What About Psychological Safety?
Psychological safety is characterized by an environment where employees are not afraid to speak up and share their views. Employees feel safe to take interpersonal risks, share concerns, questions, or ideas without fear of ridicule or reprimand from their peers and bosses.
Harvard Psychologist Amy Edmondson, who has studied the concept of psychological safety extensively, describes it in her book “The Fearless Organization” as “the experience of feeling able to speak up with relevant ideas, questions, or concerns. Psychological safety is present when colleagues trust and respect each other and feel able — even obligated — to be candid.”
Unfortunately, most places are lacking psychological safety. Employees routinely hold back their potential contributions, even when they know a process might be broken or headed for disaster. They have figured out that “business-as-usual” is a safer bet, and saying nothing is better than speaking up and disagreeing.
How Can Leaders Measure Psychological Safety?
To measure a team’s baseline level of psychological safety, Edmondson asks team members to rate how strongly they agree or disagree with seven statements:
- If you make a mistake on this team, it’s held against you.
- Members of this team can bring up problems and challenging issues.
- People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.
- It is safe to take a risk on this team.
- It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
- No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
- Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and used.
Evaluating these seven statements, some based on how strongly the person agrees and some based on how strongly the person disagrees, will paint a baseline picture of your environment.
How Can Leaders Increase Psychological Safety on Their Team?
Here are six ways leaders can create psychological safety on their teams:
- Identify a baseline of safety by sharing the survey and engaging in a meaningful conversation.
- Encourage and reward inclusion by paying attention to all voices on the team, not just the loud ones.
- Model vulnerability by sharing some of missteps and failures, and invite others to share.
- Reward employees for taking small, calculated risks in the workplace.
- If an employee makes a mistake, use it as a learning conversation instead of a compliance conversation.
- Ask for feedback from employees in team meetings and one-on-ones.
Does Psychological Safety Lead to Company Success?
An internal study conducted by Google found that teams with high rates of psychological safety were better than other teams at implementing diverse ideas and driving high performance. Employees were also more likely to stay with the company longer.
In addition, research conducted in 60 tech companies in Taiwan found that psychologically safe teams outperformed others and led to more innovation. Another extensive study found that employee trust in senior management led to increased psychological safety, which led to higher levels of employee engagement.
When employees start to feel safe on one team, something magical happens. They begin to pay it forward to everyone in their orbit, and the whole organization improves as a result.
Leaders have a responsibility to create an environment of psychological safety on their teams. Once employees know they can make a mistake and that they can come to their managers with their failures, everything changes. Slowly but surely, they start to feel more confident. With more confidence and trust comes greatness. When employees start to feel safe on one team, they begin to pay it forward, and the whole organization improves.
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