Trust, psychological contract, and psychological safety are all labels that can signal the feeling of comfort, or a lack of feeling threatened, in social settings.
William Kahn defined psychological safety in 1990 as “the sense of being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences to self-image, status or career” Why does this matter at work? What is the importance of psychological safety in the context of people management? Read on to find out.
What Psychological Safety Means to Workers
We all can think of experiences where we had to “hype ourselves up” to go to work, or felt like we were donning a mask to cope until the end of the day. In addition to suggesting we need to be inauthentic in order to be compatible with our work environment, these behaviors are indicative that we feel the need to shield or guard ourselves. This mask we show team members is a defense against experiences that may threaten our sense of self-esteem and safety throughout the shift.
Constantly bracing ourselves for a potential threat puts our bodies in a state of hypervigilance, activating our nervous systems and causing exhaustion, agitation, poor mental health, and a host of other undesirable outcomes.
On the flip side, the experience of having a psychologically safe workplace is a signal to our bodies that it is ok to be calm. In recent decades, volumes of research have been created showing the benefits of mindfulness and similar practices— all of which work by calming the nervous system (to put it simply).
When people are in a state of calm (or a lack of hypervigilance), they are better able to concentrate and focus. A person in this frame of mind is not as affected by minor experiences that threaten to color the rest of their day. Further, hypervigilance can have a contagious effect on the employee experience of other team members, signaling to them that they should be hypervigilant as well. So the emotional state of one worker can affect the greater system, and it’s likely pretty clear which emotional state (calm or hypervigilance) would be preferable in that situation.
Why People Leaders Should Prioritize a Psychologically Safe Work Environment
As mentioned above, hypervigilance and other human states can be contagious in any social setting, including work. This applies to other employees as well as to leaders of those organizations. The old “poison in the water” adage can become a reality if psychological safety and work culture are not prioritized. Psychological safety, and feelings of safety in general, are a hallmark of healthy relationships, and work is no exception.
In addition, I don’t know many people who seek to work in environments where they feel “on edge” frequently. Naturally, we must separate psychological safety from physical safety which, in the case of many service careers, is compromised as part of the job.
Promoting a culture of psychological safety is a tactic to build a healthy organization, both for the people who are already part of the team, as well as to attract new talent. Further, it creates the sense that innovation and calculated risk-taking are “safe” to engage in— that interpersonal risk-taking is a shared belief supported by the organization, and that “failure” is seen as a learning opportunity rather than the result of a personal deficiency.
Psychological Safety in Times of Economic Uncertainty
In times of economic uncertainty, such as the recent pandemic or the recession we are arguably in, psychological safety can feel like a luxury. In times like these, uncertainty threatens confidence in our decision-making, and we become overwhelmingly aware of our own fallibility.
You may be doing everything right in your organization, but the broader world just is not giving off calming vibes due to other factors at play. Accepting a lack of psychological safety as the inevitable status quo is simply not an option for maintaining high-performing teams. Your role as a leader of your organization and owner of the organization’s culture is to maintain an environment that does foster psychological safety within the organization, despite challenging external influences.
To achieve this, enhanced and direct communication may be necessary regarding the impact economic uncertainties are having on your organization. This does not negate the ability to stick to your values and provide as much consistency as you can within the organization.
The Obstacles that Prevent Workers from Experiencing Psychological Safety
People bring all kinds of experiences, feelings, and backgrounds with them to work. Some lack the self-awareness to discern their emotional bias from their true experience. Consequently, an organization can do “all the right things” and still have employees who just cannot seem to accept that they are cared about and accepted for who they are.
That being said, it is unlikely that any of us have worked somewhere where we’ve gotten exactly what we wanted exactly when we wanted it. That can create feelings of frustration and a gap between what is and what someone thought would be. This disconnect threatens various levels of psychological safety.
People have a tendency to fill this gap by engaging in an activity called sensemaking. Sensemaking is a term that was introduced in the 1970s by Karl E. Weick and has been defined as "the ongoing retrospective development of plausible images that rationalize what people are doing" (Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 2005, p. 409).
This natural human behavior creates alternate explanations for situations at hand, some of which may be rooted in truth. Other perceived experiences may give way to rumors and stories that do not bring people closer to a true understanding of the situation. An employee that perceives their (in reality) safe team as threatening will perceive a lack of psychological safety, which may be unfounded.
Furthermore, leaders have a core role to create psychological safety at work. By treating employees with respect, using active listening to engage with their concerns, being honest and transparent as much as possible, and providing some semblance of consistency and predictability, leaders can enhance the experience of psychological safety in those with whom they work. The absence of these behaviors makes it less likely that psychological safety would be experienced.
Steps HR and Business Leaders can Take to Overcome These Obstacles
As noted above, psychological safety at work is not different from psychological safety in any given relationship. We all want to experience that we are seen and heard as valuable contributors who may speak our minds without persecution. The foundations of building trust and feeling safe with another person are often rooted in behaviors like respect, honesty, predictability, and the like.
At a 1:1 level, these behaviors can be exhibited in meetings, performance reviews, project feedback, and a host of other interactions at work.
At a team and organizational level, these behaviors stem from, and feed back to, the greater workplace culture. It also influences the median employee engagement, retention rate, and team performance. Achieving a psychologically safe working environment, therefore, requires a strong set of values and/or cultural framework that is not only spoken but also visible in the vast majority of daily interactions.
Holding people accountable for achieving these goals is also critical, as is the flipside of providing clear consequences to those failing to support the lived and aspirational culture of the organization. An example of such a framework is The Collaborative Way, which reinforces a handful of key behaviors designed to promote a culture founded on respect, inclusion, and achievement of the company’s goals.
HR Tech and Other Tools that HR can Leverage to Foster Psychological Safety
Tools that monitor sentiment are likely to be the best asset for maintaining and enhancing psychological safety in your organization.
If you receive feedback that employees don’t feel they can be authentic at work, don’t have a high degree of trust in their relationships with leaders and peers, or are regularly burnt out, you might wonder whether psychological safety is lacking in your organization.
Tools to Monitor for Signs that Psychological Safety is Under Threat
Employee engagement platforms: These software tools generate and capture employee engagement survey data and pulse surveys that can detect early indicators of dwindling feelings of psychological safety.
360 Degree feedback software: 360 feedback tools gathers performance input from direct reports, bosses, colleagues, and customers. This creates a comprehensive picture of your team’s effectiveness and collaborative well-being.
Tools that Aid in Creating a Psychologically Safe Workplace
Employee recognition and rewards programs: Employees who receive recognition at work experience that the organization and team members respect their humanity and value their input. A recognition program that includes top-down, bottom-up, and peer-to-peer acknowledgment is ideal.
Diversity hiring tools: These resources assist your company in building a workplace that empowers people from all different backgrounds. Depending on the tool, diversity and inclusion software can help you identify and eliminate unconscious bias, discriminatory language, and outdated policies from your hiring processes.
Remote team management tools: When doing remote work, it is easy for team members to experience working in a vacuum where their input is either not required or given and ignored. Problem-solving may occur outside of view, which does not promote contributor safety. Effective and transparent collaboration is far easier to achieve if you use a tool like Slack or Asana.
Skills HR Leaders Should Acquire to Support Employees
In addition to the skills mentioned above, taking strong ownership of the workplace culture and building a framework for that desired culture to be pervasive in all corners of the organization is critical.
Doing so requires a certain amount of assertiveness and confidence in the organizational culture’s direction, but also humility and a willingness to learn along the way.
Remember, “if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” No one person can personally ensure the experience of psychological safety in every interaction with every person in the organization. Just like one person cannot guarantee team effectiveness. But an individual or team can provide a robust cultural framework that makes the experience of psychological safety the norm.