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Common Barriers To Psychological Safety

Psychological safety is built through discrete interactions. As team members interact with each other, they establish norms and expectations that permeate through Slack channels, cubicles, and email threads. These cultures are normally created by default. Nobody sat down and outlined a toxic culture, but over time passive observation and complicit, complacent leaders build and maintain barriers that are hard to break down. 

Psychological safety is the exact opposite. It’s intentional culture, created by design, that’s meant to break down barriers and unlock the potential of people. In order to build psychological safety on your teams, you’ll have to actively work against your organization’s toxicity. You’ll have to model and reward vulnerability in daily interactions and encourage your teams to progress through psychological safety’s four stages. As they work to become more inclusive, encourage learning behavior, work passionately, contribute autonomously, and speak openly, they’ll be more engaged, healthier, and more innovative.

An emotionally unsafe work environment can be just as damaging as a physically unsafe one. Unfortunately, most organizations aren’t aware that the toxic parts of their culture are fixable. What is it that keeps employees from feeling psychologically safe at work? Keep reading and we’ll explore the barriers to psychological safety and how you can overcome them.

Why is Psychological Safety Important?

Psychological safety is important everywhere that culture influences interaction. Learning how to model and reward psychologically safe behaviors as a psychological safety practitioner will guarantee a better cultural experience for everyone involved. Psychological safety helps people be better partners, parents, leaders, and friends. It also has unique workplace dividends. The benefits of psychological safety are most visible in the workplace, where employees are expected to execute and innovate on a daily basis. 

In the workplace, we need employees who are comfortable being themselves, learning, making mistakes, and challenging the status quo. In a culture that is psychologically safe, employees are engaged, you retain your top talent, you can easily identify pockets of toxicity, and your people will be committed to your culture. It’s just a better place to work and find fulfillment. If these are just a few of the benefits of psychological safety at work, then who wouldn’t want to minimize any and all barriers to implementing it on their teams?

Leaders who want to encourage inclusion and increase innovation in their teams will start with a foundation of psychological safety. No other cultural initiative or workplace training will be as effective without it. 

Psychological Safety Theory

Psychological safety research is as old as the first interaction. Many social scientists and organizational psychologists have been studying different aspects of psychological safety without a unifying term. Abraham Maslow and William Khan, Amy Edmonson, and even Google with its Project Aristotle, all working towards the common goal of understanding what it takes to encourage people to exist safely and authentically. What has been determined so far? Building psychological safety in teams is the best way to guarantee success on any team, regardless of its demographic or psychographic makeup. 

Timothy R. Clark’s psychological safety theory, The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, takes a practical, four-step approach to the broad term. He explains that teams need four core things in order to socially thrive in any culture, especially a workplace culture. Those four things are inclusion safety, learner safety, contributor safety, and challenger safety. Once teams feel included as their full selves on their team, they’ll be encouraged to learn and make mistakes without fear of punishment or harm. After that, they’ll want to contribute meaningfully to the teams they’re part of. Eventually, they’ll want to push boundaries and challenge the status quo as an innovative member of the team.

This psychological safety model is perfect for teams who know they have a toxic culture, but don’t know how to find the source of toxicity or treat it once they identify it. This common problem can be solved through a psychological safety survey, specifically one that hones in on pockets of toxicity in your organization.

Psychologically Safe Workplace

What does a psychologically safe workplace look like? Well, it turns out it can look like a whole lot of different things. This largely depends on your organization’s unique culture and needs. What one company struggles with, another may excel at, and vice versa. But looking at the issue from a bird’s-eye, organizational view might not be that helpful, because psychological safety at work is recognized, built, and cultivated at the team level. 

As your teams interact and collaborate with each other, they need to be able to show up authentically. After all, how can you expect a human being to give their all to a cause, a group, or a situation that doesn’t see and value them? And it’s not just about inclusion. Your people also need to be able to learn and make mistakes without feeling like their jobs are in jeopardy. They need to contribute meaningfully, work with autonomy, and have the necessary support and guidance. They need to feel safe to express hard things, honest things, and suggest changes without being shut down or ignored.

That’s what a psychologically safe workplace looks like. We’re talking about:

  • Teams that are high-performing, inclusive, and innovative.
  • An organization with no hidden problems or pockets of toxicity. 
  • Team members are committed to, not compliant with, your culture.
  • A place where everyone has a voice, and everyone is listened to.
  • Employees that exceed expectations and improve without coaxing.
  • Applications pour in while top talent never wants to leave. 
  • A place where high levels of accountability drive success. 

As the foundation of culture, psychological safety will transform your organization and empower your team members to be inclusive and innovative in their everyday interactions. But psychological safety, just like culture, is delicate and dynamic. It’s perishable, not permanent. It requires intention too.

Psychological Safety Examples

As the term psychological safety gains traction online, in the news, and in the conference room, the most dynamic organizations, the most successful leaders, and the happiest employees are all figuring out the same thing: The primary benefits of psychological safety have unique workplace dividends. This is because psychological safety lives at the heart of culture. 

Learning how to promote psychological safety will transform your culture into a competitive advantage for your entire organization. Psychologically safe organizations increase retention, enhance engagement, cultivate wellness, and improve performance, all by creating a culture where employees can be their authentic selves at work. Employees who work in these kinds of cultures can create value exponentially and become inclusive and innovative in their everyday interactions.

It sounds nice in theory. Really nice. But how do you actually make that happen on a team? How would you begin to change a culture at an enterprise level? Especially because culture is complicated, and your company culture is unique to you. What works for some people might not work for you.

These psychological safety examples will help you get started. With practice, you’ll be able to connect the dots between psychological safety and inclusion, innovation, and vulnerability. You’ll learn how to influence the cultures you participate in for good.

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