Picture the last time you felt fully at ease and engaged with a team of colleagues. You were confident to speak up, share an idea, ask a question, or identify a risk. Despite being vulnerable, you felt reassured that those around you would respect you regardless of what you said.
That’s psychological safety.
Unfortunately, many of us work in situations that lack psychological safety. And as a result, we hesitate to share anything that could make us look incompetent or unprepared. We question our abilities when we don’t know what to do and often struggle silently instead of asking for help. Or perhaps, we feel scared to own up to a mistake because of the potential downfall. This is particularly common in fast-paced business environments where we’re taught to hold back what makes us vulnerable and show a brave face.
The problem is that holding back on one idea or question often leads to a habit of staying quiet. And when no one speaks up, good ideas don’t get discussed, tough questions don’t get asked, and challenging problems are even more difficult to solve. In order to build high-performing teams, ones that create novel solutions to today’s problems, team members need to feel safe enough to speak up.
What Is Psychological Safety?
Renowned researcher and Harvard professor Amy Edmondson has spent the past three decades studying the way human interaction impacts success in organizations. Back in 1999, she defined psychological safety as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”
In work settings, psychological safety means the ability to communicate freely without fear of repercussions like being marginalized or humiliated. A psychologically safe environment is one that encourages diversity of thought and prioritizes collaboration and learning over perceived perfectionism. AKA, you don’t need to have it all figured out; you just need to be willing to speak up and engage.
At this point, you may be thinking – is psychological safety just about being nice? No. It’s also not about lowering your standards or not meeting organizational goals.
Instead, psychological safety is about keeping your standards high and meeting those goals, not by putting your head down and grinding through the work, but by fostering collaboration and enabling teams to learn and grow. This results in a team that can bring out the best in each other because there’s a mutual understanding and trust that every role is part of something bigger than themselves, creating a deeper commitment and helping hold each other accountable.
Practical Steps for Fostering Psychological Safety in the Workplace
As humans, it’s in our nature to avoid risk. Whether that means avoiding a poisonous plant or embarrassing ourselves in public, our brains are always working to keep us safe. This instinct has served us well for millions of years. But unfortunately, it can hinder our opportunities for growth in the workplace. If you’ve found yourself holding back a thought or fretting about giving feedback, you’ll know what I mean.
Still, decades of studies show that psychological safety is essential for high performance and employee satisfaction. Employees who feel safe are more likely to share ideas that are outside the box, own up to mistakes, and question what they perceive to be wrong, while those who feel unsafe are more prone to confirming and following the established path, even if they know it’s not in the company’s best interest.
In her TEDx Talk, Dr. Amy outlines three essential things leaders can do to foster psychological safety in the workplace:
- Frame the work as a learning opportunity. This can be as simple as starting a discussion with a phrase like, “we’ve never done this before.” Acknowledging that the challenge is novel and complex can create an opening for everyone in the room to share ideas.
- Acknowledge your own fallibility. Leaders often feel like they have to come to the team meeting with the solution. Beginning the conversation with a question like, “what ideas do you have for solving this problem?” creates opportunities for your employees to share their own knowledge and experience.
- Model curiosity and ask lots of questions. This one sounds simple, the challenge is to do it again and again, to make it a norm of communication with your team. Encourage open exchanges and participation by asking open-ended questions, which serve as prompts and encourage others to share what’s most important to them.
Enabling everyone to contribute, to really lean in and fully engage is the key differentiator of high-performing teams. Thankfully, as a leader, you set the tone for your team. Using the techniques above, you can create a psychologically safe space and enable your team to reach their full potential.
Final words on psychological safety
Psychological safety can transform the way your team interacts with one another, unlock opportunities for growth and lead to significant improvements in performance.
A psychologically safe environment allows everyone to contribute, providing diverse perspectives that’ll ultimately push your organization forward. Plus, it creates a space where employees want to be. A place where they feel engaged, empowered and respected — like they belong and can have a positive impact on something bigger than themselves.
As a leader, you can begin this transformation today. It begins with something as simple as asking a question to invite your team’s input. And continues with daily practices like encouraging feedback, learning from mistakes, asking for help, and vocalizing discomfort. Doing these things with your team each day will foster the psychological safety needed for them to gel as a team and exceed expectations.
There are many ways to be a good leader. If you’re ready to explore your authentic approach to leadership, apply for a free discovery call now and we’ll talk about your biggest challenges and opportunities.