- A co-pilot is concerned that the pilot is too tired to navigate a flight safely, but says nothing.
- A nursing assistant observes a physician failing to follow a safety regulation, but chooses not to report the incident.
- In a meeting an employee disagrees with the direction a project is taking, but doesn’t feel their input will be respected.
These and a myriad of other similar situations happen in workplaces every day. They occur primarily in climates where employees don’t feel psychologically safe.
What is Psychological Safety?
Psychological safety refers to an employee’s sense of security for speaking up with ideas, questions, and concerns, without fear of being punished or humiliated. In the workplace, this means that employees work in a company culture or environment where they feel they can be genuine and honest—and that they can make mistakes (intentional or not).
Dr. Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School, defines psychological safety as "a climate in which people are comfortable being (and expressing) themselves."
More companies these days, perhaps driven by experiences during the pandemic, are reducing employee turnover by focusing on feel-good management, with human resources making a concerted effort to support employees’ emotional and mental health needs and improve their work life balance.
Big Benefits From Building a Psychologically Safe Workplace
There are benefits for employers that come from creating an environment where employees feel psychologically safe. The reverse, of course, is also true. Lack of psychological safety in the workplace, and the emotional stress and anxiety it causes, can take its toll on an employee’s physical health, even affecting turnover rates.
One obvious benefit that the opening examples illustrate is the ability to minimize errors and risks when employees feel free to speak up. Employees who work in a supportive organizational culture, who feel psychologically safe, are more likely to share their ideas — even if they think they may not work — leading to greater potential for innovation.
Organizations that foster psychological safety have stellar employee retention rates because they nurture employees who are creative, energetic, enthusiastic, and productive. They’re respected by and are respectful of others, and experience freedom from bullying, harassment, and discrimination or judgement.
There’s data to back this up.
An internal study conducted by Google found that teams with high rates of psychological safety were better than other teams at implementing diverse ideas and driving high performance. Members of these teams also were more likely to stay with the company and carve out meaningful career paths.
According to a Gallup report, organizations that move towards creating psychological safety for its employees see a 30% reduction in turnover, 40% reduction in safety incidents and a 12% increase in productivity. Gartner has pointed to psychological safety as a top priority for HR leaders in 2022.
Another bonus of a psychologically safe workplace: it attracts top talent because by championing professional development and supporting diversity and inclusion. When employees feel they can bring their whole, true self to work, they are more productive and loyal. According to Goldman Sachs Asset Management, companies that are racially and ethnically diverse, perform better financially.
Tips for Building a Psychologically Safe Workplace
With August being national wellness month, here are seven ways managers and leaders can improve employee engagement by making their workplace psychologically safe.
Prioritize time for employees to connect in more deep and authentic ways so they can be vulnerable and lean on each other for support when needed. This can be done in remote and hybrid work environments as well as environments where employees work together physically. Set aside time for employees to get to know each other in breakout rooms, for instance, before or after a formal meeting. Or invite employees to participate in work-sponsored “game nights” where they can interact informally.
Ask for feedback and encourage different points of view. Your own non-judgmental responses and willingness to consider even “outside-of-the-box thinking” will make employees feel there’s less risk in sharing their ideas and opinions. A supportive, psychologically safe culture fosters collaboration, sharing and transparency. Make this part of your communication strategy.
Keep it real and be accountable. We all make mistakes. When you do, own up to it. That kind of “lead by example” behavior can foster trust, respect and support. It’s good for employees to know that their leaders are also vulnerable — and willing to admit when they are.
Look for non-verbal cues. Often times what is not said speaks most loudly. People who feel psychologically unsafe will give off signals — like fidgeting, not making eye contact, or keeping their responses very brief or non-committal.
Focus on DEI education efforts on an ongoing basis. For instance, encourage the use of gender pronouns and share tips and reminders with employees to help them understand how and why this is important.
If you haven’t already, consider making your employee resource groups (ERGs) open to all. Welcoming allies helps build understanding and better relationships.
Create “safety moments” by using real examples to illustrate how others have shared their opinions and thoughts and received positive feedback and outcomes.
Creating and maintain a climate where psychological safety flourishes is one of the employee engagement strategies that can change corporate culture for the better. Focusing on employees’ whole selves and their need for health and wellness nourishes their body and soul.