Have you ever wondered what makes teams successful? A recent longitudinal study identifies psychological safety as the number 1 characteristic of highly successful teams. If you want to will find out what psychological safety is and how to foster it, keep on reading.
What is Psychological Safety?
Simply put, psychological safety characterises an environment where people feel secure safe to be themselves, to voice their ideas and concerns. It is a culture where they value feedback and are able to engage in constructive conflict. An employee who feels psychological safety feels heard and valued. They feel it is safe to disagree, to experiment and to take risks. Generally, they are not afraid to speak up.
The Importance of Psychological Safety at Work
Why is psychological safety crucial to effective team function? What can it bring to the company? It is simple - knowledge, ideas and concerns. Too often, people keep their knowledge, ideas and concerns to themselves, because they are afraid to speak up.
This fear often stands in the way of innovation. This is because innovation rarely comes from one brilliant idea, rather it is a result of long-term collaborative effort.
The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety
Psychological safety can be divided into four stages (Clark, 2020).
Inclusion Safety: People generally feel safe to be themselves. They do not worry about being shamed or judged. And it goes even further. As the name of this stage suggests, people feel included.
Learner Safety: At this stage, people freely engage in the process of learning. They are not afraid to ask naive questions. They do not feel threatened by constructive feedback. They feel safe to experiment and make mistakes.
Contributor Safety: People feel safe to use their skills and knowledge to contribute. They feel their skills and knowledge are valued and respected. They desire to make a difference and feel free to do so.
Challenger Safety: People speak up and challenge the status quo - especially when they feel it is necessary. They feel secure in their position in the company, so they are not afraid of constructive conflict.
They are all equally important, because they are interconnected and also somewhat consecutive. People feeling inclusion safety are more likely to feel safe to ask naive questions and experiment. People feeling safe to experiment generally will also feel safe to contribute their skills and knowledge. Lastly, if people feel safe to be themselves, makes mistakes and contribute, they will generally feel safe to challenge the status quo. All of these processes are essential for effective innovation. Therefore, all 4 stages of psychological safety are thus essential for collaboration and constructive conflict.
How to Create More Psychological Safety at Work
Creating psychological safety is not a task only one person should handle. It is a workplace culture that needs everyone to contribute.
Tips for leaders to set the precedent:
Decide and communicate that psychological safety an explicit priority in the work environment. By committing to the idea of psychological safety and by communicating that to your employees, you can set a precedent. It is also important to find out from your team to what extent they understand this concept and how the view it.
Create space for new ideas. Whether its a virtual folder or a weekly meeting, creating space that welcomes all new (even wild) ideas can encourage employees to think outside of the box and share.
Lead by example when it comes to handling mistakes of your employees. In particular encourage the “mistakes as an opportunity to learn” mindset. The effect of this can be two-fold. First, employees can feel safer to experiment and take initiate. Second, employees can become more open to the learning process, instead of trying to quickly move on and not think about the mistake.
Embrace productive conflict. An innovative environment requires simultaneous increase in intellectual friction and decrease in social friction. Intellectual friction is bound to produce conflict - this is nothing to be feared. This kind of conflict often brings about new insights and points out blind spots.
What contributes to psychological safety:
Asking open-ended questions and listening carefully to the answer, in order to understand feelings and values as well as the facts. By being interested in your colleagues as people, you can build stronger interpersonal relationships, which can support you during times of intellectual friction.
Encouraging and expressing gratitude. Feeling appreciated for ones efforts can be described as one of the needs people have. Research shows that expressing gratitude is very effective in improving and maintaining interpersonal relationships.
Asking for help and helping when asked. Help seeking and giving is great for promoting a culture of collaboration. As already mentioned, collaboration is the key to successful innovation.
Embrace the expertise of everyone. Another great way to support feelings of inclusion, as well as contributor and challenger safety.
Agreeing to share failures. By agreeing to share failures and not singling out the one person who is at fault, you can contribute to team mentality and steer clear of isolation in the workplace.
Practice self-care and stress management. Easy to say, maybe more difficult to do in practice. Nevertheless, this is very important. By taking care of yourself, you can increase your capacity to deal with stress and conflict in a productive way, thereby avoiding burnout and destructive conflict.
How to know if your employees feel safe
One of the simple (but not always easy) ways to find this out is to ask. However, this can introduce a catch 22. If your employees do not feel safe enough, they might not tell you the truth. If they do not tell you the truth, then you have no incentive to change things.
There is one option that can help you get a more accurate view about the level of psychological safety at work - an anonymous questionnaire. For example, you can create an online anonymous questionnaire using the statements below. Implementing a 5 point scale (disagree, somewhat disagree, not disagree nor agree, somewhat agree, agree) that you employees can use to evaluate the statements can be one quick way to get an overall idea about the state of psychological safety.
Feel free to use the statements below to create your questionnaire using Google Forms or Survey Monkey.
Inclusion safety statements
I feel free to be myself at work.
My colleagues are genuinely interested in me.
My boss is genuinely interested in me.
I feel that my well-being is thought of at work.
I rarely feel isolated.
I rarely feel I cannot share parts of myself.
I am part of the team.
I never face personal attacks.
I think that people around me feel free to be themselves.
People around me are themselves.
I do not feel it is necessary to form alliances.
Nobody is rejected or feel isolated from the rest.
Learner safety statements
I can ask anything work-related that comes to mind.
I can freely ask for feedback.
I receive feedback on regular basis.
The feedback I receive is respectful.
The feedback I receive is constructive.
Making mistakes at work does not lead to shaming.
It is okay to be confused at work sometimes.
My team believes mistakes are an opportunity to learn.
At work, mistakes are viewed as an opportunity to learn.
My co-workers ask for feedback.
My co-workers appreciate my feedback.
I ask people for help when I need it.
Contributor safety statements
I have space to voice new ideas.
I contribute as much as I want to.
I feel that my contribution is valued.
I use my knowledge at work in a way that brings value.
I use my skills at work in a way that is meaningful to me.
I feel I make a difference at work.
People around me appreciate my contributions.
People ask me for help/advice.
I freely voice my concerns.
I am not afraid to challenge the status quo.
Challenging the status quo will not impact my social well-being in the company.
Challenging each other intellectually is welcomed.
I welcome constructive conflict.
People in my company welcome constructive conflict.
There also are a few telltale signs to look for when trying to asses the state of psychological safety among your employees. For example, if your employees are not afraid to speak up and respectfully disagree with you, chances are they feel at least somewhat safe.
Psychological safety is a core attribute of any functioning and successful work environment. It sets the stage for collaboration and constructive conflict, because people interact with each other from a position of security. Leaders plays a key role in establishing such environment. They can lead by example and also create space for those who are interested in developing such environment themselves. There are many different aspects that contribute to psychological safety and some aspects can be practiced by anyone at anytime, regardless of the established working culture. You never know what might inspire others.