Do your employees feel psychologically safe? These three tips can help
Psychological safety is essential to a workplace people want to be part of.
As the pandemic recedes, more people feel comfortable returning to the office. However, physical safety isn’t the only thing on their mind. Applicants and current employees alike are placing greater importance on working in safe spaces or workplaces that prioritize honesty, respect, and trust between coworkers. While the Great Resignation looms and the worker shortage continues, developing psychological safety is essential to a workplace people want to be part of.
Psychological safety in plain terms
Harvard professor Amy Edmondson coined the term “psychological safety” to describe the organizational structure of teams with open and honest communication that allows employees to have a sense of comfort about their ideas and identities at work. It is the central aspect of creating a collaborative, supportive environment for everyone— not just those who have been historically included.
Why is it important to have a psychologically safe workplace?
Well, for starters, Pew Research Center found that 89% of Americans believe that psychological safety in the workplace is essential. Psychological safety is the foundation for creating an environment people want to be a part of. Cultivating a space where employees feel safe to bring their full selves to work is a matter of basic respect but also enables emotional intelligence— both vital ingredients for working together. To combat a time of mental health crises, workplaces can better support their employees at all levels by actively creating psychological safety within their organizations.
of Americans say it is essential for business leaders to create a safe, respectable workplace
In a Harvard Business Review study, psychological safety was shown to enable the benefits of cognitive diversity— the inclusion of people who have different ways of thinking, different viewpoints, and different skill sets in a team or business group. A diversity of perspectives often brings new ideas that foster creativity and innovation. Having a variety of ideas among employees can reap great benefits. However, lack of a safe space for individuals to make mistakes or have respectful discourse can disrupt your team’s potential and harm employees.
Here are 3 ways to establish a safe space within your workplace
1. Celebrate differences as strengths
Everyone brings something to the table— in this TEDx Talk, Inaudy Esposito depicts the value of looking at diverse communities as a bowl of soup made of rich individual ingredients instead of a melting pot. Using this metaphor, she explains how differences are our strengths.
Showing a genuine appreciation for the differences in ideas and perspectives is not only more effective by emphasizing each colleague’s unique strength, but it also shows you care about everyone on your team. This can help promote creativity and build a foundation of mutual understanding between all levels of employees.
Plus, when differences are appreciated, innovation thrives. Jonathan H. Westover, Ph.D., explains: “The best way to drive a sustainable innovation culture is to build a diverse and inclusive team, where every individual feels valued and safe to challenge the status quo, ask questions, and even dissent. Innovation doesn’t happen when people feel comfortable; it arises when we are wrestling within productive tensions, but our people also need to feel safe as they work to challenge and disrupt.”
Hack Practice strengths-spotting with the SEA model.
S – Spot/label the strength
E – Explain by giving a short rationale of the behavior you observed
A – Appreciate or recognize the value of the person for the use of their strengths
2. Encourage speak up culture
We know from inclusion research that there are huge benefits to raising voices. Thought diversity can help counter groupthink and decrease power imbalances.
Research indicates that even when everyone within a group recognizes who the subject matter expert is, they defer to that member just 62% of the time; when they don’t, they listen to the most extroverted person.
While creating diversity policies is important for having a baseline of expectations, being outspoken and openly advocating for an inclusive space can facilitate a sense of ease for others. The more you validate the act of speaking up, the more likely others are to also speak up. Whether that’s defending a coworker’s suggestions or offering support of a varying perspective, research has shown that a “speak-up culture” in companies is a sign of psychological safety and improves organizational effectiveness. Research has also shown that vocally endorsing the ideas of historically excluded perspectives—people of color, women, queer people, people with disabilities, neurodivergent people (the list goes on!)—increases the status of the individual whose idea was amplified.
Organizational psychology researchers, Subra Tangirala and Hemant Kakkar, investigated how company culture affects an individual’s willingness to speak up. They write, “This finding suggests that if you want employees to speak up, the work environment and the team’s social norms matter. Even people who are most inclined to raise ideas and suggestions may not do so if they fear being put down or penalized. On the flip side, encouraging and rewarding speaking up can help more people do so, even if their personality makes them more risk-averse.” With this in mind, Tangirala and Kakkar suggest that organizations make it clear, through their shared everyday habits, that people have more to gain than lose when they speak up.
Hack Praise colleagues for their candor when they share a detected threat to the project or share a new idea.
3. Acknowledge that the same path to psychological safety is not equitably offered to all
Historically excluded groups (read: anyone not a straight, white man) face systemic barriers to psychological safety— many unique to their own identity. Intersectional identities add more layers to establishing psychological safety for the individual and may require additional support.
For example, Catalyst examined the impact of Emotional Tax on psychological safety for Black women and men. Emotional Tax stems from experiences like (but certainly not limited to) dealing with microaggressions, educating others, and navigating systemic bias. This study found Emotional Tax was linked to the “state of being on guard.” However, relief from Emotional Tax is associated with increased psychological safety.
The combination of feeling different from peers at work because of gender, race, and/or ethnicity and the associated effects on health, well-being, and ability to thrive at work
To help foster equitable psychological safety, seek to learn from the perspectives of those who have different racial, ethnic, or cultural backgrounds than yours. It will help to check your own bias and privilege first. By self-checking, you can improve awareness of cultural barriers that many employees face each day. Being informed of systemic barriers and developing awareness of your own points of privilege can help to create a safe space and keep fellow employees accountable to do the same.
Hack National Association of School Psychologists suggests self-checking by asking yourself questions like these:
- When was the last time you had to think about your ethnicity, race, gender identity, ability level, religion, and/or sexual orientation? What provoked you to think about it or acknowledge it?
- How do you respond when others make negative statements towards individuals of a different ethnicity, race, gender, ability level, religion, sexual orientation, and/or gender identity than yourself?
- How diverse is the community in which you live?
Whether it’s a hybrid, in-person, or virtual workplace, every employee wants to feel respected and valued at work. Prioritizing psychological safety can help your organization recruit the best talent and influence the well-being of employees in all positions. Try incorporating these changes into your work life and see the positive impact on the entire team.
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