Back in the paleolithic era, our ancestors faced numerous challenges—inclement weather, wild animals, and scarcity of food—all of which threatened their lifespan. In response, they evolved to become social animals, establishing a sense of safety within their tribe, where they felt a sense of belonging. The resulting feeling of security fostered trust and cooperation among members of the tribe.
Drawing from this natural inclination, modern workplaces have also embraced the idea of a communal sense of belonging, creating an environment that cultivates trust and collaboration towards achieving shared goals. However, when trust is violated, it can have dire consequences. What happens when the very tribe that is intended to provide a sense of security becomes a source of strife and hindrance to our success?
Good leaders make their reports feel safe
The instinctual need for safety from ancient times is still deeply ingrained in our psyche, and it plays a crucial role in our professional lives as well. In the workplace, good leaders understand that creating a sense of safety is essential to building a strong and productive team. When employees feel safe, they are more likely to trust their leaders and collaborate with their colleagues.
Google conducted a research project known as ‘Project Aristotle’ in an effort to identify the characteristics of successful teams. The project, spanning several years and involved analyzing data from hundreds of Google teams, found that psychological safety was the most important factor in the creation of successful teams, followed by dependability, structure and clarity, meaning and impact, and psychological diversity.
But how exactly can we define psychological safety?
“I define psychology safety as a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes, and that the team is safe for inter-personal risk-taking. Think of it as felt permission for candor.”
— Professor Amy C. Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School.
Anthropological research has further shown that our sense of safety is closely linked to our levels of fear. When we feel afraid, our bodies release hormones that trigger the fight-or-flight response. This can be useful in life-threatening situations, but in the workplace, it can be counterproductive.
Fear can lead to a lack of trust, decreased collaboration, and ultimately, lower levels of productivity.
According to research conducted by Gallup, employees who feel as though their manager is invested in them as people and not just as employees are more likely to be engaged. They are more likely to feel committed to the organization's mission and values, as well as to their colleagues and leaders.
Psychological safety is a critical asset
When employees feel safe and supported, they are more likely to take risks, speak up, and bring new ideas to the table. It is an environment in which managers are able to provide constructive feedback to team members without disrespecting or dehumanizing them.
“Psychological safety isn’t about being nice. It’s about giving candid feedback, openly admitting mistakes, and learning from each other.”
— Professor Amy C. Edmondson
When employees feel like they belong to a workplace, they are more likely to feel invested in the success of the organization. They feel more committed to their work and more willing to go above and beyond in their efforts. This extent of commitment to work translates to greater productivity, improved performance, and a more positive work environment overall.
Innovation is yet another advantage of committed employees. They may feel more comfortable sharing their ideas and suggestions, which can lead to new and creative approaches to problem-solving. This can be especially important in today's fast-paced and rapidly changing business environment, where creativity and adaptability are key.
What makes a workplace unsafe?
In contrast to a safe workplace, a hostile work environment can result in decreased productivity, low morale, high turnover, and most importantly, a damaged reputation. But what goes into the making of one?
- Fear of Retaliation: When managers constantly retaliate against employees, they may avoid speaking up, reporting an issue, or bringing forth new ideas in fear of retaliation.
- Lack of Trust: An unsafe atmosphere at work creates a lack of trust between employees and management or among colleagues. In such an environment, employees may feel that their colleagues or leaders are not reliable, honest, or supportive.
- Fear of Embarrassment: Employees may feel that they will be mocked or humiliated for making a mistake or not knowing something. This can create a culture of blame or shame, causing them to take less risks.
- Hostile Work Environment: Employees who experience bullying, harassment, or discrimination in the workplace are subject to increased stress, anxiety, and depression.
- Lack of Support: Employees may feel that they don't have the support they need from their colleagues or managers, and may feel uncomfortable asking for help.
Psychological safety in the workplace takes work
Creating a workplace culture of psychological safety requires conscious effort, and HR leaders are at the forefront of this endeavor. There are several measures leaders can take to ensure that everyone in the organization is working towards fostering psychological safety.
One approach is to provide training and support to all levels of management, which can include workshops on active listening, empathy, and conflict resolution. HR leaders can also establish clear policies and procedures for addressing instances of harassment, discrimination, or other forms of toxic behavior to ensure that everyone feels safe and valued in the workplace. A culture of vulnerability where managers are unafraid to talk about their own weaknesses with team members also creates a sense of trust and safety.
However, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to creating a culture of psychological safety, as each company has its unique culture and challenges. For instance, some companies may benefit from strategies such as implementing employee feedback programs, regular check-ins with managers, and employee resource groups, while others may benefit from strategies like Google's Search Inside Yourself program, which promotes mindfulness, empathy, and emotional intelligence.
It’s all worth it
Creating psychological safety at work is a must-have for any organization that wants to thrive in today's competitive landscape. It requires hard work, dedication, and a commitment to creating a culture of respect, trust, and inclusivity.
The rewards of prioritizing psychological safety are well worth the effort. By creating an environment where employees feel safe to speak up, share their ideas, and take risks, you can unlock the full potential of their workforce. And in doing so, you create a workplace where everyone feels safe, and unafraid to take on new challenges.
“Psychological safety and courage are simply two sides of the same (immensely valuable) coin. Both are—and will continue to be—needed in a complex and uncertain world.”
— Professor Amy C. Edmondson