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Does Your Company’s Culture Build or Prevent Psychological Safety?

It’s hard to find an article about workplace culture that doesn’t reference psychological safety. The topic took off when the pandemic unveiled many personal struggles employees incur in their jobs. For example, a McKinsey Global Survey conducted during the health crisis found that few business leaders regularly demonstrate positive behaviors that can create a psychologically safe workplace.

The concept picked up steam as an increasing number of disenfranchised workers launched the Great Resignation in 2021. Now psychological safety is firmly in the business lexicon as organizations grapple with attracting and retaining top talent and maximizing productivity to remain competitive.

Employers are becoming increasingly aware that for their organization to have continuous success, they must create a workplace culture where people can confidently bring their best selves to work every day.

What is Psychological Safety?

The Leader Factor’s blog post on the history of psychological safety outlines the term’s background, which has an impressive pedigree.

Edgar H. Schein and Warren G. Bennis coined the term in the mid-1960s when they wrote, Personal and Organizational Change Through Group Methods. They defined psychological safety as a climate "which encourages provisional tries and which tolerates failure without retaliation, renunciation, or guilt."

In 1990, the concept gained more traction in business circles when William Khan’s research connected it with a term he popularized, “employee engagement.” Employee engagement is the involvement and enthusiasm of employees in their work and workplace, which is critical for effective performance. Kahn explained that employers can’t garner high employee engagement unless they make their organization a safe place for their staff to express themselves authentically.

In 1999, Harvard professor Amy Edmonson expanded the definition of psychological safety. She described it as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” And the Center for Creative Leadership further simplifies the description: “Psychological safety is the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.”

The Four Stages of Psychological Safety

So what do all these explanations look like in the workplace? Dr. Timothy R. Clark outlines a framework in his book: The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining a Path to Inclusion and Innovation.

Stage 1—Inclusion Safety

This stage meets the basic human need to belong and connect with others. It allows employees to feel accepted for who they are.

Stage 2—Learner Safety

People want to learn and grow. In this stage, workers feel safe to ask questions, give and receive feedback, experiment, and learn through mistakes.

Stage 3—Contributor Safety

Contributor safety satisfies people’s yearning to make a difference. In it, people feel safe to leverage their skills and knowledge to make meaningful contributions.

Stage 4—Challenger Safety

In this stage, employees feel they can confidently speak up and challenge norms when they believe there’s an opportunity for improvement.

When organizational culture reflects interpersonal trust and respect and provides a sense of belonging, it builds psychological safety. It creates an environment where employees collaborate more effectively, are more innovative problem-solvers, and are more committed to organizational goals.

Developing a Psychologically Safe Workplace

The Center for Creative Leadership offers guidance for business leaders who want to make their organizations psychologically safe. They recommend the following eight steps:

  1. Make psychological safety an explicit priority.

Leaders must communicate their commitment to psychological safety with their staff. They can connect the dots for their people by explaining how it facilitates greater organizational innovation, collaboration, and unity. And they should model the inclusive behaviors they want to see their team exhibiting to create a safe workplace.

  1. Facilitate everyone speaking up.

Leaders should encourage curiosity and honor frankness and honesty as long as people are respectful and aim to move things forward. They should demonstrate and coach open-mindedness and compassion and be willing to listen when team members are brave enough to challenge the status quo. Leaders who listen and are transparent set an example for employees to do the same and encourage them to share their thoughts openly.

  1. Establish norms for how failure is handled.

Innovation breeds success, but employees won’t risk experimenting if they fear punishment for failure. Leaders can create psychological safety by establishing a blame-free culture and initiating it with their own behavior. They can encourage intelligent risk-taking by demonstrating that mistakes are growth opportunities. And they can coach their people to not point fingers when something goes wrong and instead work together to ensure errors don’t recur.

  1. Create space for new ideas.

Some ideas from team members won’t work, but leaders should challenge them within the larger context of support. They can encourage creative thinking by helping employees work through concepts with productive feedback. This allows people to feel like they are working to improve things, even if they have to go back to the drawing board.

  1. Embrace productive conflict.

Leaders should promote sincere dialogue and constructive debate and work to resolve conflicts productively. They can initiate incremental change by clarifying expectations for behaviors that contribute to psychological safety. The Center suggests that leaders moderate discussions about the following questions with their team:

  • How will team members communicate their concerns about a process that isn’t working?
  • How can reservations be shared with colleagues respectfully?
  • What are our norms for managing conflicting perspectives?

Teams can grow and become more connected when conflict is channeled properly in a safe environment.

  1. Pay close attention and look for patterns.

Leaders should monitor team members’ perceived patterns of psychological safety, not just the overall level. For example, they should determine if some people experience significantly more or less psychological safety than others. Discrepancies can easily occur because people come from many backgrounds and bring a spectrum of experiences to work. If leaders notice a psychological safety imbalance, they need to adjust their approach so everyone’s needs are met.

  1. Make an intentional effort to promote dialogue.

Leaders should teach and reinforce specific behaviors to establish a psychologically safe culture. They can begin by:

  • Promoting the skill of giving and receiving constructive feedback
  • Teaching people how to respectfully respond to feedback and understand the intent behind it
  • Creating space for people to raise concerns and showing them how to do that for others.
  • Asking thoughtful, open-ended questions
  • Actively listening to understand others’ feelings in addition to gathering facts

Leaders can also encourage behaviors that enhance communication throughout the organization, including:

  • Addressing people directly about issues that involve them
  • Sharing information freely
  • Being responsive
  • Embracing diverse perspectives

Teams that practice and strengthen these behaviors will generate strong communication pathways that facilitate psychological safety.

  1. Celebrate wins.

Leaders can support their workers by noticing and acknowledging people who demonstrate behaviors that make others feel respected, heard, and included. Positive interactions and conversations build trust and mutual respect and strengthen the team. Leaders who show appreciation for this conduct underscore their commitment to psychological safety.

A Psychologically Safe Culture

Amy Edmondson is clear about the impact of psychological safety: “It is literally mission critical in today’s work environment.” It’s a healthy culture’s basis, not an add-on component. The behaviors that create psychological safety form the infrastructure that allows leaders to build and maintain a high-performing team.

The initial benefits of cultivating a psychologically safe culture include:

  • Higher employee engagement
  • More successful diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives
  • More innovation
  • Higher retention rates
  • Decreased stress and anxiety in employees

And employees who operate in a psychologically safe environment are primed to excel in other areas. Because they feel more connected to their organization, they’ll be more vested in its success. They’ll be more enthusiastic about quality, performance, improvements, and goals. And they are more likely to deliver excellent customer service, which in turn builds the company’s reputation. Psychological safety is also a key component of developing a strong leadership track.

At CultureWise, we help business leaders strengthen their organizations and drive success. Explore the CultureWise website to learn more about systematically building a supportive, dynamic organizational culture. And book a call with one of our specialists for a free consultation about how we can help your company.