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Have you ever walked into work and felt like you became an entirely different person? A shadow of yourself, perhaps? Can you be your authentic self in workplace settings, where your career is on the line? Can you make mistakes, challenge yourself and others, learn freely and work autonomously? That’s what psychological safety at work is all about. Creating inclusive cultures where people can innovate without cultural constraints.
Most psychological safety questions come up because the concept is still new. We’re not used to seeing these types of interactions, where vulnerability is actively rewarded, in work settings. But as psychological safety research continues, we’re learning more about what’s effective and what moves the cultural needle. What used to be employee satisfaction, which then turned to employee engagement, is turning out to be a lag measure for culture. Psychological safety is proving to be the lead measure. As more organizations adopt this mindset, we’ll settle into safer cultures and workplaces where diversity is celebrated and unlocked with inclusion. And as that happens, more and more psychological safety statistics will become available.
What we know for sure is that psychological safety isn’t a fad or trend. This concept needs to be taken from theory to practice in every organization that wants to compete in dynamic markets, retain top talent, succeed and innovate.
Learning how to promote psychological safety is tricky business since most organizational influence is held at the top. Sure, employees and managers heavily contribute to workplace environments, but C-suite executives and leaders hold the cultural keys. They’re the ones who perpetuate norms, demonstrate expectations, and set the cultural tone and standards.
Psychological safety leadership starts with a common language and an understanding of the concept. People in power need to understand the hierarchies and dynamics at play so they can know how to best implement psychologically safe practices into their existing organizational infrastructure. Leaders then empower and equip their employees with the tools and techniques they need to reward the vulnerabilities of their peers and colleagues. They model vulnerability themselves. They engage in ongoing, meaningful discussions that encourage honest feedback. They train consistently. They apologize when they make mistakes. All of these practices create a psychological safety toolkit that can break down barriers and reinforce the culture that leaders are aiming for.
So, what are some examples of psychological safety at work? Well, what works in some organizations might not work for your specific needs, since team dynamics are a critical factor in deciding what will, and what won’t, work for your people. When Google conducted its psychological safety case study, Project Aristotle, they discovered that it was team dynamics that affected innovation and effectiveness more than anything else. Here are some examples of how a culture of psychological safety could look on your teams:
You’re in a meeting and you think your team has missed a critical insight that could change the trajectory of not only the meeting, but the project moving forward. But you’re new, and you’re not sure if the idea is off-base or if this has already been solved for. You speak up anyway, and your opinion is met with gratitude and consideration. Your other team members take the time to validate what you said, and even explain their reasoning for not worrying about it. They encourage you to keep bringing things up.
You walk into the office (or hop online, for our virtual friends), on a day that’s feeling hard. You have some difficult things going on in your personal life, and you don’t want to be there. Your manager immediately notices that something is off, and kindly pulls you aside to ask if you’re okay. Because of past experiences with this leader, you feel safe to tell them what’s going on. You know that they’ll listen and advocate for you when necessary.
You’ve made a customer-facing mistake and, quite frankly, you’re scared. You’re worried that if you tell your manager about the situation, you’ll face career-ending consequences. But you tell them anyway, and to your surprise, your mistake isn’t treated like a catastrophe. Instead, it’s treated like a normal part of life. You and your manager work together to solve the problem and prevent it from happening in the future. They even thank you for discovering a snag in past processes.
You can introduce psychological safety exercises into your training to practice these skills, because modeling the behaviors you expect at work is the best way to ensure that you’re on the same page about your psychological safety initiative.
Timothy R. Clark’s psychological safety framework explains how teams progress through its four stages as they work to create an inclusive and innovative workplace culture. 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. Because unfortunately, psychological safety doesn’t just happen. So it can’t be a one-and-done initiative or a back-burner idea. It should be at the forefront of your strategy. It has to be monitored and measured. It has to be planned out, revisited, and consistently improved.
This psychological safety model, The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, acknowledges that we’re humans first and employees second. The framework follows a universal pattern that reflects the natural progression of human needs in social settings. These needs exist across demographics, psychographics, nations, and cultures. Just like humans need water, food, and shelter to survive, teams that want to innovate need four things in order to thrive: they need to feel (1) included and (2) safe to learn, (3) contribute, and (4) challenge the status quo.
A lack of psychological safety in the workplace is, unfortunately, a common cause of toxic workplace culture. Sometimes organizations are actively toxic, but other times these people are actively complicit. They concede to historical organizational norms, and the result is a less-than-ideal workplace culture. The Culture by Design podcast, produced by LeaderFactor and hosted by Timothy R. Clark, gives listeners examples of lack of psychological safety and how to fix that on your teams and in your organization.
The importance of psychological safety in the workplace cannot be overstated. Cultures that reward vulnerability are cultures that value their employees for who they are, what they can contribute, and the voice they bring into the organization. If a workplace culture is psychologically unsafe, you’ll find teams of fearful employees going through the motions and hoping not to be noticed. But if you have psychological safety? The power of your teams’ diversity will be unlocked and they’ll be motivated to innovate and contribute with autonomy.
Learning how to create psychological safety at work starts at the individual level. Your job, whether you’re a leader or a team member, is to model and reward, instead of withhold and punish, acts of vulnerability in the workplace. As you do so, the people around you will follow suit, because they’ll trust that they can be their authentic selves without fear of punishment or harm. Here are 4 steps to boost psychological safety at your workplace:
First, make yourself interruptible. People who are never available silently communicate that they don’t want to connect with others around them. If you’re not willing to make the rounds and get to know your coworkers, how can you expect them to feel known by you? Not to mention, people who are available to chat are also the people who hear about problems and concerns first-hand. So, making yourself available and interruptible is a surefire way to start a speak-up culture of psychological safety on your team.
Second, ask for dissenting opinions. Once your team knows that you care about what they think, especially if they have merit to disagree with you, your discussions and meetings will become even more innovative. Teach your colleagues that constructive feedback and criticism are integral parts of dynamic organizations trying to get ahead of the curve.
Third, reward mistakes and failure. When you can detach fear from mistakes, your teams will be more likely to approach ideation and iteration with honesty. They’ll continue in the learning process, push boundaries, and try new things because they know they have the permission to do so.
Fourth, don’t micromanage. Engaged employees crave autonomy with guidance. As you infuse appropriate accountability and autonomy into each role, they’ll be more likely to take ownership of their job and the work they do. They’ll be happier for it.
These are just four of the hundreds of psychological safety exercises that you can try as you work to make your organization a safer place for everyone involved.
This model and framework are outlined in Timothy R. Clark’s most recent book, The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation. This book asks employees and leaders to crack themselves open and learn how they interact with the cultures they participate in. Clark explains in detail how each stage of psychological safety’s four stages is crucial to team success, inclusion, and innovation. When teams approach culture by design, instead of by default, that’s where change sticks.