It may be a relatively new phrase on the block (coined by Amy Edmondson, an organisational scientist from Havard sometime in 1999), but it’s a concept that’s been around for as long as successful businesses have.
Amy’s definition of it was “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking”. In layman’s terms, it’s employees feeling secure enough to share their thoughts, ideas and concerns.
The proof is out there for all to see: the most successful teams, regardless of sector or industry, are the ones that have psychological safety. And the most successful businesses are the ones that value and promote it. As Google eloquently put it a few years ago, “there’s no team without trust”. Their two-year study on team performance showed that their best performing teams all had the same thing in common: psychological safety.
Sadly, it’s still all-too-common for employees to hold back their thoughts, suggestions and feedback for fear of being judged, derided or ridiculed for them. They might even consider them as potentially silly. Or they fear that they are missing some crucial information (that everyone else somehow, magically knows) that renders their contributions invalid or otherwise unworthy. Essentially, this means that they don’t have the required psychological safety within that team, or at that time, to share their thoughts. And that’s a real shame for their leaders and for their employer, because often, those ideas aren’t silly or invalid at all. In fact, they could just lead to something decidedly beneficial after a bit of brainstorming and development.
So, how do we create and encourage a culture of psychological safety that will enable and empower our people to speak up, and our teams to share, brainstorm and problem-solve?
Unsurprisingly, a lot of this is steered by the communication culture within our businesses.
And it starts at the top. Empathy is a hugely important factor in the success of leaders, when it comes to creating a culture of psychological safety. Showing humanity, humility, and good humour is not the same as showing weakness. In fact, showing some vulnerability makes us more relatable and can build better connections with our people. These are the traits that keep our people feeling safe, confident, and comfortable in their roles, and with their sharing their thoughts and ideas.
Harassing, berating, or duping your people will not generate the same results (or the same loyalty) as leading with empathy, authenticity and humility.
That said, all information shared needs to be current, accurate, and precise, and the expectations of our people should be clear. Psychological safety requires people to have trust and confidence in their leaders, so being sincere, credible and clear is as important as being considerate and realistic. Setting fair but clearly defined expectations is also essential. Honouring our obligations, commitments and our promises is also vital for trust and psychological safety to thrive.
Transparency within communications is also a key ingredient. Whether it’s feedback on the company’s performance, future business plans or announcements, employees need to feel both informed and heard. Inviting thoughts, feelings and feedback on an ongoing basis is a sure-fire way to build the trust that leads to psychological safety.
Put simply, if contributions and feedback of all types are not invited, facilitated and recognised, then psychological safety is never going to survive.
A communications strategy that includes multiple ways for your people to contribute will help psychological safety to flourish. Online tools (such as MS Teams, Slack, Workplace, or a good intranet) can offer collaborative platforms for people to share their contributions. Such spaces are particularly useful to those who prefer to deliberate and reflect on their input before sharing it.
That strategy should also include a robust platform for recognition and appreciation. Not only should recognition come from above (and it really should!), but providing a tool that enables and empowers your people to recognise and appreciate each other in a meaningful way will work wonders for growing that psychological safety and creating a healthy culture of trust and loyalty.
And, finally, to the F word… Yes, failure. Failure is a concept that sits far more comfortably with many of our younger colleagues than with many of us who have been in the workforce a little longer. They simply don’t fear failure in the same way. It is their belief, quite rightly, that mistakes are okay, we learn from them. And so, if we are to build a culture in which our employees and colleagues are unafraid to share their ideas, we must accept and show that mistakes are a natural and accepted part of the process. And, referring back to my earlier comments about leading with empathy and humility, leaders who have the confidence to share their own mistakes -and how they learned from them- will build this confidence in their teams.
Start to embed psychological safety within your teams now and you can expect greater motivation and engagement, better performance, improved loyalty, and increased collaboration and learning.