Do you feel safe at work? If you work in an office and you spend most of your time at your desk or in meetings, you might be tempted to say yes. After all, you’re not working in a construction zone or manufacturing plant, so what could go wrong?
Just because your workplace is physically safe, however, does not mean that it’s psychologically safe. In psychologically safe environments, individuals never feel intimidated when it comes to expressing their thoughts and ideas. Unfortunately, many workplaces are psychologically unsafe, and this environment can negatively impact innovation and employee engagement, leading these organizations to fall behind their competition and struggle with retention.
What Does a Psychologically Unsafe Workplace Look Like?
If you’re unsure whether your workplace is psychologically unsafe, here are some examples to consider…
When a team member presents an idea in a meeting and management offers them a less-than-encouraging response, they may no longer feel safe bringing up ideas in future meetings. Likewise, other individuals who were present in that meeting may learn from their coworker’s example and choose to stay quiet in future meetings as well.
A team member messes up on a project, causing a team to miss a deadline and making a client unhappy. As management attempts to find out what went wrong, no one wants to receive harsh criticism or ridicule by assuming responsibility for the error, so the team largely ignores the issue rather than approaching it with a problem-solving attitude.
In other words, a psychologically unsafe workplace is any workplace in which employees fear interactions with their superiors and/or teams, as these interactions may lead them to experience embarrassment, shame, discouragement, harassment, etc. As you can imagine, these psychologically unsafe environments limit collaboration, weaken the team’s overall performance, and lead to a stressed and potentially anxious or depressed workforce.
In contrast, leaders in a psychologically safe workplace encourage collaboration, innovation, creativity, and problem-solving with teams working together to achieve common goals. A psychologically safe team is a more productive, engaged, and happy team.
However, creating this type of environment is easier said than done, simply avoiding “being mean” to your coworkers is not enough to create a psychologically safe workplace. Here’s how you, as a senior leader, can cultivate a work environment in which your employees feel safe.
4 Factors of a Psychologically Safe Workplace
There are four key factors leaders can use to evaluate the psychological safety of their workplace. In psychologically safe environments, leaders prioritize:
Communication and feedback should be a two-way street. If you notice low participation and engagement during your staff meetings, this lack of engagement may point to a deeper issue of whether employees feel safe communicating with leadership.
Speaking of feedback, your organization should provide it with care. Team members and leaders should offer thoughtful and encouraging techniques and empower employees to thrive. When giving an employee feedback, don’t just point out their faults; acknowledge and praise their excellence and offer constructive criticism that provides them with a clear path to improvement.
In a psychologically safe workplace, you strive to include everyone on the team as you build just that — a team, rather than a group of individuals. To create a truly inclusive environment, you should consider that some team members may have different approaches, needs, and/or backgrounds than others, which is why DEI initiatives are so important in the modern workplace.
In a psychologically safe workplace, executives take on servant-leader roles, providing teams with whatever support they need to benefit the entire organization. Truly supportive leaders think about how they can best set their team members up for success.
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Challenges to Cultivating Psychological Safety at Work
As previously mentioned, though, prioritizing these four factors of psychological safety can be difficult. Challenges to cultivating safety at work include:
Particularly in financial industries, stress and pressure are part of the job. When leaders feel like their careers or reputations are on the line, it’s easy for them to make rash decisions regarding how they lead or treat team members. However, it’s important to recognize that mistreating team members can lead to more harm than good for both morale and the organization.
A Risk-averse Culture
The safest spaces are those in which it’s okay to make a mistake or take a risk. Risk-averse organizational cultures, on the other hand, limit creativity and employee engagement which might ordinarily drive a company to success.
Some offices are built on outdated hierarchical structures that don’t allow employees to communicate and collaborate with one another. Make efforts to reframe how your team looks at its organizational structure and evaluate how you could benefit from a more collaborative approach.
4 Practical Tips for Fostering Psychological Safety
In addition to addressing the above challenges and prioritizing a psychologically safe workplace, you can also take these powerful, yet practical steps to develop a culture of safety and employee engagement.
Encourage Open Dialogue
Encourage collaborative dialogue between leadership and teams in which you prioritize active listening. Encourage anonymous feedback from employees, especially if you’re in a workplace that’s been psychologically unsafe in the past and where employees may not feel secure enough to voice their feedback aloud.
If you don’t have one yet, create a DEI initiative within your organization. Inclusivity means your organization acknowledges and values everyone’s voice, ideas, background, and experiences. Promote inclusivity, develop and integrate diverse hiring practices into your organization, and create equal opportunities to advance employees’ careers.
Provide Constructive Feedback
Implement regular performance reviews but ensure you offer constructive and encouraging feedback.
Demonstrate Supportive Leadership
Lead by example and show that your commitment to a psychologically safe workplace is more than a passing thought. Invest in training for leaders in your organization so they can further help you identify areas of improvement.
The Bottom Line
Cultivating a psychologically safe environment empowers employees to share ideas without fear of punishment, which helps reduce turnover and fosters a more inclusive environment in which everyone feels heard.
While it’s not always easy to create a psychologically safe environment or to reverse the damage caused by a psychologically unsafe environment, the benefits will far outweigh the effort an organization puts into these processes.