Psychological safety: what does it mean and why does it matter in organisations? HR Director, university lecturer and CIPD Chartered Fellow Gemma Dale is here to explain.
What is psychological safety?
Psychological safety is a term that is used to describe a particular team dynamic. It is a shared belief within a team that it is safe to take risks and to be your true self at work, without fear that this will lead to negative personal or professional consequences.
Professor Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School is one of the leading academic researchers into psychological safety. She says that it goes beyond a team merely trusting each other, but instead it describes a team that is “characterised by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves”. Strong team relationships can be key to psychological safety.
Why is psychological safety important?
Research has found that high performing teams also have high levels of psychological safety. Its presence can support learning, employee engagement, creativity, and innovation. It will feel okay to say that you don’t understand, try something new and give feedback. People will be respectful of each other, won’t rush to blame and will be able to admit to a mistake.
In contrast, when there is no psychological safety, employees will often choose not to speak up, make suggestions or put forward their ideas, simply because they do not feel that it is safe for them to do so. They may fear that they will be criticised, laughed at, or even that their job will be at risk. They may hold back, hoard information, or hide parts of their true self.
Psychological safety exists within individual teams, but is influenced by the wider organisational culture too. While psychological safety may arise naturally in a team, it can also be actively cultivated. As a subject it is complex, and each employee may have their own personal sense of safety, distinct from colleagues even within the same team. For some, bringing your authentic self to work may be more complex than for others; for example not everyone would feel comfortable openly discussing their sexual orientation, transgender status, or disability.
Related article: An employer’s guide to LGBT inclusion in the workplace
Psychological safety during the COVID-19 pandemic
Psychological safety is important at any time, but in the context of a global pandemic it is perhaps more important than ever. Many teams are working remotely and are therefore physically separate from one another. This can reduce a sense of connectedness and the building of team bonds. It can also reduce those casual conversations through which people get to know one another.
The significant impacts of COVID-19 on many businesses and the broader economy are also causing employees to fear for their long-term job security. These conditions may inadvertently work against the creation of an environment in which it feels acceptable to challenge, raise difficult issues, or take personal risks. Some employee groups may be especially concerned; even before COVID-19 many employees said that they would not tell their manager if they had a mental health problem. When people are concerned about job security, they may be even more likely to keep this to themselves.
Ironically, the impact of COVID-19 on businesses means that right now, survival may just depend on those factors that psychological safety can encourage: innovation, creativity, effective team working and engaged employees.
Creating psychological safety at work
Creating a true sense of psychological safety will not necessarily be either quick or simple. Employees cannot be compelled to trust one another or share aspects of their personal selves, especially if the organisational culture has traditionally been a low-trust environment. There are however steps that managers and leader can take.
Three steps to encourage psychological safety
There are three things that a manager can encourage in a team to promote psychological safety:
- Effective team relationships
- Contributions from all
- Joint problem-solving
Effective team relationships can be supported by helping people to get to know each other and creating space for informal dialogue as well as work talk. Even when many employees are working from home, this can still be facilitated by creating opportunities for informal team interaction online – even meeting for a virtual coffee can support relationship building.
In team meetings, managers can actively seek contributions from everyone present, coming to each team member in turn and asking open, coaching style questions whilst making sure that the conversation is not dominated by a few loud voices. When challenges and problems arise, involving the entire team in finding the solution and acknowledging every contribution will help to inspire employees to speak and share.
Finally, and perhaps most important of all, if managers want employees to bring their whole selves to work and be vulnerable enough to take risks, they need to start deliberately role-modelling precisely those behaviours themselves.
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Written by Gemma Dale
Gemma Dale is an experienced senior HR professional, CIPD Chartered Fellow, HEA Fellow, and a regular speaker and writer on a variety of HR topics. Gemma is the co-author of the book 'Flexible Working' published by Kogan Page in 2020. She is also a lecturer in the Business School at Liverpool John Moores University and runs her own business, The Work Consultancy.