Psychological safety at work: how to design workplaces that prioritise employee wellbeing
As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. When it comes to creating a positive workplace culture, many companies aren’t walking the walk—and are starting to feel the effects. Think for a moment about a top sports team and what makes them so successful? While they clearly all need to be at the top of their game, they also need to have trust in each other, be able to show up authentically, rely on one another when under pressure and know they won’t be ridiculed when they inevitably make a mistake. Now, imagine fostering that same environment amongst teams in a workplace and the benefits—from increased motivation to lower stress levels—that would come with it. So, how do you build strong, trusting, and stress resilient teams like that in organisation? It’s time to get clued up on psychological safety.
What is psychological safety?
Psychological safety is a shared belief that your colleagues and managers are looking out for your best interests. This includes feeling safe that you will not be ridiculed, embarrassed, rejected or punished for sharing your opinions or doing your work. In short, psychological safety means being comfortable in showing your authentic self without fear. In his book, The Four Stages of Psychological Safety, Dr. Timothy Clark outlines the key stages that teams can move through when contemplating psychological safety at work:
- Inclusion Safety: this stage sees individuals experiencing a sense of safety and belonging within their team. This creates inclusivity and a feeling of being wanted and appreciated by colleagues. At this stage, individuals are comfortable being present with their team.
- Learner Safety: in this space, individuals feel confident asking questions without fear of judgement and are able to learn from making mistakes.It’s in this phase that individuals start to experiment with new ideas and reach out for help if needed.
- Contributor Safety: this stage is where individuals feel safe contributing their own ideas without fear of embarrassment. Clark highlights stage three as being the most challenging of the stages but also the most important. Individuals’ vulnerability will be heightened when contributing, however this is also the time where they are able to really add value and let their gifts shine.
- Challenger Safety: the final stage is all about feeling able to push back on authority, challenge ideas and present new ones without feelings of blame or conflict.
Why is psychological safety at work important?
The importance of psychological safety at work cannot be overrated, not only as a way to encourage open communication but to create an environment of growth and productivity. Without it, employees may not feel comfortable sharing problems or blockers, leading to inefficiencies and an inability to see or correct failures. A lack of psychological safety in the workplace can also create a culture of blame, where employees do not trust one another sufficiently to admit mistakes or ask for help when needed.
According to Dr. Amy Edmonson, author of The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth, employees must be able to share their opinions, voice concerns and feel comfortable asking left-field questions, in order to create a culture of innovation. If employees do not feel able to disagree with ideas or decisions, creativity can falter. A healthy level of friction and conflict is required when discussing ideas to ensure that the best idea wins, and not just the loudest voice.
What can leaders do to promote psychological safety at work?
As any manager knows, finding the right balance between being a respected leader and creating a friendly, trusting relationship with employees can be challenging. One one side, you need to establish a clear working relationship, on the other, you want reports to feel comfortable approaching you with problems or concerns. Worries around sharing personal information, creating employee bias and perception of unprofessionalism have stopped many managers from trying to cultivate more open relationships with their employees—and in most cases, rightly so. Being mindful of grey areas while setting clear boundaries is important when cultivating psychological safety in the workplace for both manager and employee. So, rather than asking for more personal information from your team, try to focus on creating a circle of trust where individuals feel comfortable sharing relevant situations that affect their work while showing that you trust them to make good decisions for themselves and their team:
1. Open up the floor.
Start up a conversation with your team to discover their struggles. You want to share ownership of this new way of working rather than gatekeep—plus, it’s a great opportunity to show your employees that you want to create a better working environment for them.
2. Lead by example.
There’s no sense in demanding candour from employees—it’s hard for employees to want to share if their managers don’t open up too. Share your struggles and how you are overcoming them. Once you’ve created a safe space for open communication, it will start to flow more easily.
3. Take it slow.
To truly feel authentic, you cannot rush the process. Take small, incremental steps and don’t put any pressure on any one member of the team who is moving at a different pace. Just because one person feels comfortable now, doesn’t mean others do.
4. Share your goal.
Help your teams understand the value in fostering an environment of psychological safety at work. Share positive examples that showcase the benefits for both individuals and the company without adding any pressure to change behaviours overnight.
5. Stay vigilant.
Psychological safety at work takes time to build but only a few moments to destroy. Push back on peer pressure, no matter how well intentioned, and offer suggestions for how to reframe interactions in a positive way. For example, an innocuous comment such as ‘we’d love to see more of you in the office’ might simply be one person’s way of genuinely expressing their wish to work in person with their colleague but could easily be perceived as a dig.
6. Give the freedom of choice.
One foundational part of creating psychological safety in the workplace is the level of strategic autonomy you can give to your team—from choosing their responsibilities and work-life balance, to where they carry out their work. In the age of hybrid working, getting this last point right has become crucial, spurring important conversations on the future of workplace design.
Why is innovative workplace design important?
The impact of innovative workplace design on psychological safety is a new and burgeoning field, but one where many benefits to both employer and employee has been well documented. We know that providing choice is important in helping employees feel safe at work, and one effective way of doing this is to create a variety of different workspaces for employees to use. Think about noise, lighting, temperature, privacy, soft furnishings and the type of atmosphere created overall. Ideally and where possible, modern workplaces should prioritise a mix of spaces, from airy, open-planned and energetic desk clusters, to quiet zones and small, cosy, warm corners employees can retreat to when they need to recharge their internal batteries.
By giving employees a choice of where they work in office spaces, you help to build resilience against the normal ups and downs of the day. Employee A may feel more confident presenting a meeting knowing they can retreat to the quiet of a plant-filled corner afterwards. Employee B may feel energised by the bright lights and commotion of a common working area if they often spend time working home alone. Creative a range of inclusive workplace design spaces shows employees that you recognise their emotional needs as well as their basic ones. And, as many companies are hoping to entice employees back into offices (at least on a part time basis), these considerations are fundamental to showing employees that thought has been given to psychological safety on different levels.
An environment of psychological safety benefits every aspect of a business, from increased productivity to a better work culture as a whole. And, while it’s the management level’s responsibility to set clear parameters around which work-life issues employees are safe to raise, companies need to ensure they equip their leaders and their spaces with the right tools to encourage psychological safety holistically. Finally, it’s equally important to ensure every individual in the business commits to creating an environment where everyone feels safe and secure to do their best work. After all, the success of a company relies on the success of its employees.