How to Create Psychological Safety in the Workplace

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Saphia Lanier
Saphia Lanier

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Work is the second home for 133m+ full-time employees in America. It only makes sense that workers want their second home to be as comfortable and welcoming as their real home. Unfortunately, this isn't the case for employees who work in toxic and unsupportive environments. 

creating psychological safety in the workplace

A 2021 study by Workhuman shows that 48% of workers have experienced burnout, 61% have experienced elevated stress levels, and 32% have felt lonely at work. Not what you'd imagine a healthy and supportive workplace would look like. 

But just because this is a reality for countless individuals doesn’t mean it has to be the reality for your business. By creating psychological safety in your workplace, you can feel good about providing your employees with the safe space they need to thrive — and you might even realize some benefits of your own.

What is psychological safety in the workplace?

A psychologically safe workplace is when workers feel they have a safe place to express their ideas, learn from mistakes, and ask questions without fear of retribution or embarrassment. It’s essential for building a healthy work culture that employees enjoy coming into each day. 

It can also help you foster a culture of creativity in your workplace, where employees are encouraged to think outside the box without having to worry that their ideas may prompt mockery or other consequences.

Importance of psychological safety in the workplace

The psychological well-being of your workers directly impacts the productivity and success of your company. 

When your employees are unhappy or stressed out, what do they do? They leave. Or worse, they stay at your business but become disengaged, resulting in lost productivity and profit. 

Here's a list of other benefits of taking psychological safety seriously in the workplace: 

  • Foster open communication. Psychological safety in the workplace starts with creating an open and honest dialogue between team members. With better communication comes better collaboration, which is critical when working on teams. 
  • Reduce employee turnover. Feeling appreciated and valued is one of the key factors that make employees stay at a company. Creating a psychologically safe workplace can help reduce employee turnover and retain top talent.
  • Boost creativity. Psychological safety makes it easier for employees to think outside the box and come up with creative solutions. Your team will be more willing to take risks and experiment with new ideas, which can lead to a competitive edge in your industry.
  • Increase employee engagement. When employees feel safe to express themselves, they become more involved and invested in their work. They feel more connected to their colleagues, which results in increased collaboration, creativity, and productivity.
  • Improve problem-solving. A psychologically safe workplace allows employees to freely share their perspectives and opinions, leading to better decision-making processes. When employees feel comfortable contributing ideas, they can help identify problems and find solutions.
  • Improve mental health. When employees feel comfortable at work, they’re less likely to suffer from stress and anxiety;  more likely to be motivated and committed to their work; and less likely to experience burnout. A psychologically safe workplace can also help prevent or manage mental health issues by not contributing to their stress. 
  • Enhance innovation. When employees feel safe to share their ideas, they can challenge the status quo, leading to new and creative solutions. It can also help them learn from their mistakes and take risks.
  • Attract better talent. When employees feel psychologically safe, they develop trust and loyalty toward their employer. Employees who feel valued and supported may help foster a positive work environment,resulting in better employee morale and attracting new talent to the company.

Maintaining a mentally rewarding workplace isn’t something to ignore. Over 80% of employees say they’d prefer good mental health over a high-paying job, illustrating the importance of a healthy work environment. 

7 tips for creating psychological safety in the workplace

“Psychological safety is earned, and can’t be demanded or expected by leaders,” says Kayla Glanville, co-founder of travel app Upaway. 

“Trying to implement or force psychologically safe surroundings has the inverse effect. It takes time to create a culture of psychological safety, but almost no time to destroy it. Creating and maintaining cultures of psychological safety takes thoughtful effort by showing up through our actions — not just through our words — repeatedly.”

In other words, behavior isn’t told; it’s modeled.

Below are seven tips you can use to model psychological safety in your workplace.

1. Establish the vision for psychological safety.

Communicate the need for psychological safety to team members, and how it’ll benefit everyone. Then explain what behaviors are acceptable, and provide clear expectations and guidelines. Doing this sets the foundation for how everyone in the organization will interact with one another, and what behaviors won’t be tolerated.

For example, teams shouldn’t hold grudges about co-workers’ mistakes or ideas. Likewise, workers should be open-minded to others’ suggestions. 

But don’t just state what you want and hope for the best. Consider incorporating these policies directly into your company mission or core values, and make a plan to measure their efficacy so that you can make necessary adjustments.

“I like to measure psychological safety in the workplace through employee pulse surveys,” Glanville says. “Surveys provide a snapshot of how employees feel about their work environment and identify areas for improvement. Also, try anonymous pulse surveys as well as non-anonymous ones — if you’re getting far more feedback in your anonymous surveys, that’s a clear indicator you may have a trust issue.”

2. Promote teams to speak up. 

During meetings, note which members of your team speak up — whether to ask for clarification, volunteer for projects, or offer their opinions. If you notice that people rarely speak up at these moments, it may be due to a feeling of shyness or embarrassment. 

Instead of simply expecting your team to offer their input or ask questions, it can be helpful to directly prompt their input by asking things like:

  • Does anything need to be clarified?
  • Does anyone have any questions about this?
  • Would anyone specifically like to lead this project? 
  • Does anyone feel that they need help with their tasks this week? 

According to Glanville, reluctance to contribute can be a red flag and signals that your policy needs improvement. Maybe you need to do trust-building exercises to get teams to open up and share their thoughts and opinions. 

It’s also good to provide resources to make team collaboration easier, such as productivity and communication tools like Slack, Google Docs, and Zoom.

3. Offer mental health resources. 

Most health insurance plans now cover mental health services along with traditional physical health services. If you include this in your employees health plan, consider educating them about their benefits so that they understand what’s available to them. An employee who knows mental health services are covered by their policy will be more likely to take advantage of them. 

Why does this matter? Mental health issues such as anxiety and depression can directly and indirectly contribute to difficulties at work. Any resources you can provide your employees to deal with these issues can lead to greater productivity, increased engagement, and other benefits.    

4. Encourage team-building exercises.

Teams that play together grow together. Consider taking team-building exercises beyond work by scheduling fun events like bowling, flag football, softball tournaments, and other activities that promote teamwork. 

The better your employees get along together outside of work, the better the odds that they will work well together in the office.

5. Foster an environment of constructive criticism. 

Nobody likes criticism that is designed simply to cut them down. Constructive criticism, however, can be a powerful tool that helps you address performance issues while still making your employees feel respected. 

Encourage employees to give and receive critiques that are respectful and helpful. Leaders should make sure they’re open to feedback as well, so employees feel empowered to improve their leaders. When providing feedback, phrase it in terms of how the task can be improved, not what the person did wrong.

For instance, promote team members to give each other constructive feedback to allow everyone to grow and improve. Eventually, people will grow comfortable expressing their thoughts freely. Set up regular meetings for teams to discuss goals, their progress, and roadblocks.

It’s also ideal to offer alternative feedback loops. 

“Build with the understanding that people have different traits, personalities, and comfort levels by providing multiple opportunities and avenues for folks to give feedback and/or have their voice heard,” advises Glanville. “For example, even in a very psychologically safe organizational culture, some people don’t feel comfortable public speaking, so that person may value a survey that’s read by the leadership team monthly.”

6. Reward and recognize employees for their effort.

Recognition is an important part of fostering psychological safety in the workplace. Letting employees know that their hard work is appreciated can go a long way to creating a culture of psychological safety, encouraging engagement and retaining your top performers. 

With that in mind, try to recognize people for their specific accomplishments or efforts so they feel valued and respected by their colleagues and leaders.

In the Workhuman survey, employees reported a higher psychological safety rating when they have managers that check in on them. However, only 29% of respondents have weekly manager check-ins. The report also shows only 51% of respondents received thanks from managers in the last month. 

Make it a priority for your management teams to show recognition for employees’ efforts, not just accomplishments.

Positive reinforcement promotes psychological safety. Offer public rewards, awards, and gifts to recognize when teams and individuals meet goals or achieve milestones. Celebrating small wins and successes together builds trust and fosters a culture of teamwork and appreciation. 

7. Encourage risk-taking and innovation.

Don’t punish failure — instead, encourage team members to take risks and innovate. Celebrate the hard work of employees even when they fall short of reaching a goal. Ensure everyone understands that failure isn’t a dead end, but an opportunity to learn.

Examples of psychological safety in the workplace 

Companies large and small should be mindful of the psychological impact their workplaces have on employees. To date, more businesses are proactively improving their work environment for the betterment of employees.

Here are several examples:

  • Google’s g2g: Googler-to-Googler is a program where employees connect to teach one another new skills and share knowledge — an excellent way to open the door to ask questions without feeling intimidated, since it’s a learning environment. 
  • Patagonia’s open-door policy: At Patagonia, no door’s off limits to workers. Any employee can speak to anyone in the company about any issue they have. So if a new employee has a problem, they can go straight to the CEO to work it out. It also allows workers to go to whomever they feel most comfortable with. 
  • Etsy’s blameless post-mortem policy: At Etsy, workers are encouraged to come forward to discuss the reasons behind their failures and accidents. For instance, they share the actions they took, expectations they had, effects observed, assumptions made, and the timeline of events. The goal is to understand what happened, why, and how to prevent it from happening again in the future, without fear of punishment. 
  • Zappos’ “no managers” policy: There’s no “head” of the teams at Zappos — instead, everyone works together to make decisions. This is excellent for encouraging team collaboration and communication and removes the intimidation factor often associated with leadership roles. 
  • HubSpot’s culture code: At HubSpot, there is a culture code that outlines how workers should treat each other and work together. Having this foundation sets the tone for building a healthy and happy workplace. The company emphasizes having HEART — being humble, empathetic, adaptable, remarkable, and transparent. 

Creating psychological safety in the workplace is a team effort. So get your managers and employees on board with outlining the culture, policies, and initiatives to help build a safe space for everyone.

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