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What is Psychological Safety?

What is psychological safety? That’s the question that HR professionals, business leaders, and DEI specialists worldwide are trying to answer. We define psychological safety as a culture of rewarded vulnerability. It has four stages, inclusion safety, learner safety, contributor safety, and challenger safety. These stages in the psychological safety framework reflect the innate social needs that humans have, the need to belong, to grow, to work autonomously, and to have a voice. 

Psychological safety at work is a culture where those needs are not only met, but prioritized. Leaders who operate under conditions of psychological safety understand that their employees are humans, not robots, with dynamic needs, diverse talent, and varying perspectives. In this article, we’ll give some examples of psychological safety at work that should help you determine if your organization is psychologically safe, or if you have some work to do. 

What is Psychological Safety at Work

What is psychological safety at work? Well, it really depends on the unique needs of each and every organization. Organizations are made up of teams, and teams are made up of individuals, unique individuals who interact with each other every single day. As they interact, norms form, and those norms influence future behavior and perception. Organizations that encourage interactions that punish vulnerability and induce fear will not have psychological safety. On the other hand, organizations that are psychologically safe model and reward vulnerability across the four stages of psychological safety.

So, if you’re a leader who wants to learn how to create psychological safety on your teams, start by creating inclusion safety. Help your team members know that they belong and are seen by you. Give them opportunities to grow. When they make mistakes, don’t punish them. Teach them that mistakes are part of the innovation process. Give your teams the right amount of autonomy, with guidance, to make meaningful contributions. Let them know they have a voice. Listen to that voice. 

A lack of psychological safety in the workplace looks like the opposite of all of those things and, unfortunately, it’s more common than you’d think. Disengaged employees flee well-paying positions all the time because the environment isn’t psychologically safe. Are you unsure how your employees are feeling? Teach them about the four stages of psychological safety and ask them how they think your organization is doing. Be warned, though, that ignoring their suggestions would make the whole situation worse. Once they speak up and voice their concerns, you have to listen.

Psychological Safety Examples

In 2014 Google conducted an accidental psychological safety case study, called Project Aristotle. They were trying to determine what made successful, innovative teams so great. Although they thought that the main factor would be diverse opinions and perspectives, the quality of team interaction was actually the determining factor in successful teams. Teams that have higher levels of psychological safety were happier, more innovative, and more effective in the workplace. 

So how do you get there? If you already understand the psychological safety examples that we listed above, and how the four stages work together to meet the individual needs of your team members, then you might try integrating these psychological safety exercises into your daily work life: 

Greet intentionally.

Let others know that they are seen by you. Take the time to acknowledge their presence in a meaningful way. What is meaningful to some, may not have the same meaning for others. If you are unsure how to personalize your greetings, ask each colleague to let you know what would mean most to them. 

Ask "what do you know?"

Just because someone doesn't have the full answer doesn’t mean that they don't have insightful contributions that will help your team move forward. Don't let your colleague shut down after admitting that they don't know, politely probe for what they do know about a given situation. Use guiding questions and curiosity to glean what you can from their expertise and experiences.

Offer a way forward.

Those who make mistakes generally don’t want to dwell on them. Motivate them to move along and continue contributing by offering clear solutions or simple steps forward. It doesn't have to be complicated to get them back into the groove of thing

Be courteous with time.

Questions like "What do you already have on your plate this week?" will let your team members know they can accept more responsibility without fear of drowning in tasks and deadlines. Allow them their autonomy to prioritize.

Follow up with non-participants.

Who stayed quiet during your last meeting? Take the time to pull your colleague aside to find out what’s preventing them from participating. Do your best to resolve their concerns. What can you change to make their discussion experience more comfortable?

Why is Psychological Safety Important

Why is psychological safety important? Psychological safety is where great culture starts. What makes a culture “great?” When we say that great culture starts with psychological safety, we’re not talking about perks and parties. We’re talking about teams that are high-performing, inclusive, and innovative. An organization with no hidden problems or pockets of toxicity. Team members that 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. That’s psychological safety.

These are only a few of the benefits of psychological safety. As you embrace a psychological safety initiative on your teams, you’ll see exponential increases in meaningful interaction, employee engagement and wellbeing, bounce back time from mistakes, and constructive feedback. It will require intention and patience, since any and all cultural change takes time and commitment. But over time your teams will trust that psychological safety isn’t just an organizational fad or facade and that it’s instead here to stay. 

How to Promote Psychological Safety

Culture is a complicated blend of values, assumptions, perceptions, attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and customs. But essentially, it’s just interaction. Each seemingly discrete interaction both shapes you and is shaped by you. As those interactions build up (assuming you interact with the same people in the same settings) over time, a culture forms. Leaders who want to learn how to promote psychological safety should start with self-reflection. The leader in any organization holds the cultural keys, they’re the cultural architect responsible for breaking down barriers and building bridges instead. They're creating culture by design.

What Are the 5 Steps to Psychological Safety?

Here are five steps to create inclusion safety in your organization:

1. Listen and Pause.

Listen with intent to comprehend rather than the intent to respond. Do this by listening, pausing to reflect, and then responding thoughtfully. Have you ever been talking to someone and you can tell that they’re simply waiting for you to finish your sentence so they can jump in? That’s not always a problem, but if that’s the pattern, it does become a problem.

2. Ask Twice as Much as You Tell.

When you ask someone a question, it’s an invitation to engage and a form of validation. Telling can be fine too, but if you tell too much, it’s self-serving and it signals selfishness, arrogance, and dominance, all of which are off putting.

3. Avoid Comparisons and Competitions.

When we compare and compete with each other, we lose the ability to connect. Avoid the temptation to be jealous or resentful about the strengths of others, especially when they are strengths you may not possess. If you can rejoice in the strengths of your team members the connections you make become deeper and more genuine.

4. Express gratitude and appreciation.

Remember, the most powerful form of recognition is free. It’s simply expressing gratitude and appreciation. When others perform well, express genuine gratitude and appreciation as much as you can. When others try hard but fail to meet their goals, recognize their efforts with empathy.

5. Identify Negative Bias.

A bias is a preference for or against a human characteristic, individual, or group of people. As humans, we all have them. Sometimes they are hidden. Sometimes they are obvious. Periodically ask yourself if you can identify any patterns of negative bias. Then act to remove them.

Psychological Safety Survey

A psychological safety survey will tell you more about your organization’s culture than any employee engagement survey could. After all, how could you expect anyone to improve psychological safety if they don’t know where they’re currently at? Using a psychological safety assessment tool, especially one that focuses on interactions at the team level, will help you find pockets of hidden toxicity in your organization. You’ll know what your team members need, and how to meet those needs using the four stages of psychological safety.

So, that’s psychological safety in a nutshell. Interested in learning more? We’d recommend The Complete Guide to Psychological Safety. This free, 40-page ebook dives deep into culture and vulnerability, and how leaders and individuals everywhere can build psychological safety into their everyday interactions. 

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