How to Create Psychological Safety at Work

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Every leader probably knows they need to be creating psychological safety for the people they lead.  But it’s also worth considering whether you actually feel safe to speak up to the leaders you report to with your concerns, questions, ideas or mistakes as a leader.

I remember one time when I decided to speak up about struggling with my wellbeing when I was under huge workload pressure in my leadership role. When I suggested the organisation was actually responsible for this, I was quickly shut down. After that, I was no longer willing to speak up about my concerns. It may not have been the leaders’ intention, but I was effectively silenced.

Psychological safety is really a very simple concept, but it’s not always easy to achieve. It takes consistent and thoughtful work, and empathy, to create psychological safety, but the outcomes are well worth the effort. When people feel safe, that’s when you can start talking about even the most challenging subjects that leaders and their teams often avoid.

Psychological safety is the feeling that it is safe to speak up with your concerns, questions and ideas, or to acknowledge your mistakes, without fear that you will be embarrassed, shamed, rejected or punished.

With psychological safety in place, you will be ready to start having courageous conversations and to give and receive effective feedback. Feedback conversations are based on empathy, and they will go something like this.

  • I’m curious about your struggles so I ask questions to find out what’s going on, rather than making assumptions about you, or judging you.
  • I am aware of the impact my words may have on you emotionally, so I offer my feedback with kindness – the type of kindness that is genuine, not fake.
  • We’re both willing to be vulnerable because we have established a relationship of trust, in which it feels safe to speak up.
  • You feel affirmed because I’m offering you support, and communicating my appreciation for your strengths.
  • We work together to make the feedback process more effective, and we both take responsibility for being accountable for following up on our conversation. 
  • My feedback really makes a difference by helping you to learn and grow.
  • But I’m open to learning as well, because it’s pretty likely you’ll have some feedback for me too.
  • We both relish the opportunity to give and receive feedback because, together, we’ve created a feedback culture at work.

Some Compelling Research on Psychological Safety

In the early days of the pandemic, McKinsey conducted a global leadership survey on psychological safety. This is what the they found:

When employees feel comfortable asking for help, sharing suggestions informally, or challenging the status quo without fear of negative social consequences, organizations are more likely to innovate quickly, unlock the benefits of diversity, and adapt well to change.”

What’s interesting is that despite the clear benefits that come with psychological safety, the research found that most business leaders don’t demonstrate behaviours that create the positive team climate that’s necessary for psychological safety. The leader sets the tone so it’s essential that leaders model behaviours that support psychological safety.

The McKinsey research found that the most important behaviours for leaders to demonstrate to create a positive team climate are being supportive and consultative. We all know what this looks like and feels like. The work environment and organisational culture is positive when team members value each other’s contributions and care for each other’s wellbeing. It’s only when this type of team environment has been created that it’s safe for leaders to start challenging their teams. Only then will benefits like innovation and adaptability really be possible.

It was worrying to read in the McKinsey research that only 43% of survey respondents said there was a positive climate within their team. The research found that only 20% of leaders frequently demonstrate supportive and consultative behaviours while 41% of leaders infrequently demonstrate supportive and consultative behaviours. This creates an employee experience they call the Apathy Zone. They also found that 13% of leaders were not supportive and consultative but were nevertheless challenging to their teams. This creates an employee experience they call the Anxiety Zone.

Both of these zones tend to silence people and come with negative impacts on engagement and productivity. I call this the silent zone and it’s definitely not where you want to be personally, or where you want your team to be.

If this is happening to you or your team, it’s actually simple to fix. Start supporting people and start consulting your team.  The team culture will change into a positive climate where people are appreciated for their contributions, and they feel safe to speak up.

So instead of apathy or anxiety, this is where people can move from the silent zone to the safety zone, and it becomes possible to start challenging your team. Challenge is much more effective when it is based on safety.  This is when your team will start really performing and innovating. This is the Learning Zone. This is where you really want to be.

Ten Factors that Build Psychological Safety

Building on the learning from the McKinsey research, here are my ten strategies that will help leaders start creating psychological safety for your teams and organisations. If you’re consistently doing these ten things as a leader, people will feel safe to speak up and to acknowledge mistakes, without any fear.

  1. Always behave ethically – honesty is key
  2. Be clear about expectations
  3. Follow through on your commitments
  4. Acknowledge your own mistakes
  5. Take an interest in people and show them you care
  6. Ask questions rather than assuming or judging
  7. Express your appreciation
  8. Provide support
  9. Consult people on changes that affect them
  10. Create a positive team climate

You will need to be doing these ten things from day one when you employ some-one. It’s too late when the bullying complaint lands on your desk, or when some-one goes off sick with a mental health issue.

Many leaders are already doing so well with these ten strategies, but in some areas, there could be room to improve to create a positive team climate where people feel safe. And your own leaders might also have some work to do if you’re not feeling safe.

Which of these strategies are you consistently putting into practice? And which ones do you need to work on? I invite every leader to think about one action you could take today to help create psychological safety in your workplace.

Maria Brett
The Growing Edge

Maria Brett is a former CEO who has been a practitioner of mindfulness for more than 25 years. Maria’s Courageous Leadership Program helps participants change the way they lead, including how to create psychological safety.  To find out more, contact Maria.

References:
McKinsey, 2021.  Psychological safety and the critical role of leadership development. See https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/people-and-organizational-performance/our-insights/psychological-safety-and-the-critical-role-of-leadership-development

© Maria Brett, 2023