10 ways to build psychological safety at work

Making people feel comfortable and valued in the workplace will help maximize team performance

10 ways to build psychological safety at work

Canadian employers have legal obligations to protect the health and safety of their employees. But feeling safe in the workplace doesn’t just mean avoiding physical dangers. A productive workforce with a strong workplace culture involves employees who feel psychologically safe as well.

Read more: 1 in 5 employers boost benefits for psychological services

What is psychological safety in the workplace?

For employees to be truly productive, they need to feel that they can work to the best of their ability. That means not restricting themselves because they’re worried about repercussions from supervisors or colleagues. Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, who first used the term “psychological safety,” described it as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” That means employees can feel confident that colleagues won’t embarrass or reject them for offering their ideas or opinions. A psychologically safe workplace is one where people feel comfortable and a valued part of the team.

Why is psychological safety important in the workplace?

When people are encouraged to share their ideas and thoughts, it maximizes the skills and abilities of the team. Employees feeling safe will participate in discussions, collaborate, solve problems, be more engaged, and therefore be more productive. They can also be more focused if they know that they play an important part in their team’s and organization’s strategies and goals.

Open and supportive workplaces can also discourage negative behaviours such as bullying, gaslighting, and harassment, since employees will feel empowered to report such misconduct to their superiors, while potential offenders won’t feel that they will be sheltered or enabled. Diversity and positive thought will naturally grow out of such work environments, leading to more creativity, problem-solving, and team performance. This in turn will help retention of talent and reduce turnover, which can be costly for employers.

Implementing the national psychological safety standard is the right thing to do to protect employee mental health, say Canadian companies.

Read more: Actions speak louder than words in psychologically safe workplaces

How do you build psychological safety?

Here are 10 ways organizations can create psychological safety at work.

1. Be engaged with your team

Leaders set the example for their teams and it’s important for them to demonstrate desired behaviour instead of just talking about it. They should be familiar with and supportive of team members and be open to feedback and employee concerns.

2. Give your full attention to your team

If a leader is distracted with other things and not focused on their team, it’s going to be hard to avoid some level of disconnect from their team. When there’s a disconnect, employees may feel that they are left to their own devices, particularly if problems crop up. Regular check-ins and one-on-one conversations will help keep connections strong. Leaders should show their team members that they’re focused on them by being present during meetings without multitasking, asking questions, summarizing what employees are saying, and making eye contact.

3. Understand and consider your team’s POV

Workplace diversity brings people with different life experiences and different viewpoints together. Take advantage of it by considering all angles and perspectives from the team to help develop the best possible solutions. Understanding and accepting how different team members see things will encourage them to speak up and feel like they’re being heard. It will also help foster consciousness of behaviours and systemic inequalities that certain team members may find discouraging or harmful.

4. Focus on solutions, avoid blaming

Blaming people when things go wrong will quickly discourage people from speaking up or giving their best effort, and the organization could lose valuable ideas and information as a result. Instead of focusing on someone’s responsibility for a problem, steer attention to solving it so employees continue to feel safe as a member of the team. Focus on what the team can do to improve matters and figure out why the problem arose. Avoiding the blame game will inspire some risk-taking and learning from failure, which can foster innovation and creativity while building trust between team members.

5. Build self-awareness

Encourage employees to familiarize themselves with their own strengths and weaknesses, which will help them focus on their role and they can contribute. Tools such as behavioural assessments can help employees build self-awareness. Leaders should understand their own strengths and weaknesses, which will help them be more effective. It’s also important to realize when words or actions can negatively impact someone, even if there is no bad intent.

6. Be transparent and own up to your mistakes

Owning up to mistakes is a good way to lead by example, for both managers and employees. It demonstrates transparency and builds trust with the team. Acknowledging that everyone can make mistakes will help employees feel confident to share their ideas and give their best without being afraid of messing up. Fear of failure can contribute to employees feeling psychologically unsafe.

7. Avoid negativity

Positivity fosters engagement and productivity. Negativity, on the other hand, does the opposite and may lead to valuable employees leaving the organization — and it can spread quickly if it’s not addressed. Conflict is fine, as long as it’s embraced as part of the problem-solving process and not belittling to any individuals — that could discourage someone from contributing and thus be counterproductive to the end goal. Productive, respectful conflict with active dialogue and debate allows employees to float authentic ideas and feed off of each other, which in turn can develop effective problem-solving skills.

8. Consult the team when making a decision

Employees have their individual skills and strengths; that’s why the organization hired them. Leaders should take advantage of those skills by keeping them involved in strategies that involve the work they do. Get their thoughts on decisions that may affect their workplace environment to keep them engaged and feeling like a part of the team. If employees are caught off-guard by things that affect them, it cultivates uncertainty and leaves people feeling psychologically unsafe.

9. Be flexible and open to feedback

Leaders can demonstrate that they are open to feedback and willing to hear their team’s thoughts by showing curiosity about what everyone is doing and thinking. They should also make a point of praising and respecting employees who are candid and straight with them. Psychologically safe employees are empowered to voice their thoughts, which will ensure that valuable information or viewpoints aren’t missed.

10. Support and represent your team

Managers and supervisors have to oversee their employees, but they should also have their back if negative or harmful issues arise. Organizations and leaders should show empathy, offer praise and recognition, use effective ways of communication, embrace the various skills and perspectives of a diverse workforce, and actively promote a psychologically safe workplace. Make it clear that psychological safety is a priority for the organization and the team.

Knowledge-hiding makes workers feel psychologically unsafe and provides no competitive advantage, according to three studies.

Latest stories