Psychological safety may be a relatively new phrase on the block (apparently first used by Amy Edmondson, an organisational scientist from Havard, as recently as 1999), but it’s a concept that’s been around for as long as... well... successful businesses have.
Amy defined it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking”. I call it feeling secure enough to share your thoughts, ideas and concerns.
Regardless of industry, the most successful teams are the ones that have psychological safety. And the most successful companies are the ones that nurture and promote it. Google said it best a few years ago: “there’s no team without trust”. Their two-year study on team performance showed that their highest performing teams all had one thing in common: psychological safety.
Sadly, it’s still hugely common for employees to hold back ideas and suggestions for fear of being judged, mocked or ridiculed for them. (I know I have in the past.) We might think of them as potentially silly. Or we fear that we are missing some key information (that everyone else knows, of course) that renders our input invalid or unworthy somehow. Essentially, this means that we don’t have the psychological safety in that team, or at that time, to share our ideas. And that’s a shame for us and for our employer. Because often, those ideas aren’t as daft as we fear. And they might just lead to something highly beneficial after a bit of brainstorming with our peers.
So, how do we establish and promote a culture of psychological safety that will help our people to speak up and our teams to create, brainstorm and problem-solve?
Unsurprisingly, a lot of this is steered by the communication within our organisations.
And it starts at the top. I’ve written quite a few times about the importance of empathy as an essential quality for leaders and how showing humanity, humility, and good humour is not the same as showing weakness. Showing vulnerability makes us more relatable and can build better connections with our people. These are the traits that keep our people feeling confident, safe and comfortable in their roles, and with their ideas.
Harassing, haranguing or hoodwinking your people will not generate the same results (or loyalty) as leading with authenticity, empathy and humility.
That said, information shared from the top needs to be accurate and precise, and expectations should be clear. Psychological safety requires people to have faith in their leaders, so being credible and clear is as important as being thoughtful and realistic. Setting fair but well-defined expectations is important. As, of course, is honouring our commitments and our promises.
Transparency within communications is also a key ingredient when it comes to cementing in psychological safety. Whether it’s performance feedback, future business plans or company announcements, employees like to feel both informed and listened to. Inviting thoughts, feelings and feedback on an ongoing basis is a powerful way to build the trust that leads to psychological safety.
Put simply, if ideas, suggestions and feedback are not invited, facilitated and recognised, then psychological safety is never going to grow or take hold.
A communications strategy that includes multiple ways for your people to share their thoughts and ideas also encourages psychological safety. Online platforms (such as Workplace, Slack, MS Teams or a good intranet) can offer collaborative spaces for people to share their contributions. These spaces are particularly valuable to those who prefer to ruminate on their input before sharing it, as long as all contributions are recognised, respected and appreciated.
Read more: 35 examples of good internal comms
A concept that’s at home with many of our younger workers, but that sits uncomfortably with some of us who have been around a little longer, is that of being unafraid of failure. Mistakes are okay. We learn from them. Needless to say, if we are to build a culture in which our people are unafraid to share their ideas without fear of ridicule, we must show that mistakes are a natural part of a journey and that they are normal and accepted. Leaders sharing their own mistakes and how they learned and grew from them is a great way to build this confidence in their teams. (See the above paragraph on leading with authenticity, empathy and humility.)
Finally, if you don’t know what kind of levels of psychological safety you have across your workforce, why not ask your people? Ask them how confident they are to speak up without fear of criticism or ridicule in your next employee survey. Or run a quick pulse survey on just this topic. The results may surprise you. And if you don’t like what they tell you, now you know what to do to make some positive changes.
If you can start to embed psychological safety within your teams now, you can expect greater engagement and motivation, improved performance and loyalty, and increased learning and collaboration.