How to Create Psychological Safety at Work (and why it matters)

Let me ask you… Is it safe to speak openly in your workplace? For everyone, and about all things? Is it safe to take risks and make mistakes? To ask for help? To innovate?

What I’m talking about is psychological safety, which is when all members of a group adopt and practice the belief that it is valuable to speak openly, disagree, take risks and even make mistakes, and that there will be no negative repercussions for doing so. In fact, there’s more likely to be positive recognition than anything else. 

So, we want to make it safe to fail? 

Yup! Personally, I don’t like the words “fail” and “mistake.” My belief is that what are often called failures or mistakes are just stepping stones of learning and progress. However, for this article, I’m going to talk about failures and mistakes because the fear of these things, and the negativity around them, prevent psychological safety, which hinders innovation, co-creation, engagement and growth.

Psychological safety empowers the habits, qualities, and ways of being that enable individuals, teams and organizations to pivot smoothly, achieve high level objectives, and continuously take themselves to greater heights. For that to happen, it must be ok to fail, be wrong, disagree, speak openly, challenge norms, and so on.

As a way of operating, psychological safety must be adopted and practiced by everyone at all levels, especially leadership.

If full, unconstrained openness and innovation are not thriving in your workplace, psychological safety is most likely where you need to put your focus. How do you do that? How do you create a culture of psychological safety in order to reap the full benefits and evolve your business?

In this article, we’ll discuss:

  • What is psychological safety in the workplace?
  • The link between psychological safety and innovation
  • Why aren’t your efforts working?
  • How to create psychological safety
  • 5 Strategies to foster open communication and trust among team members
  • What are some examples of creating psychological safety?

What is Psychological Safety in the Workplace?

I love how McKinsey defines psychological safety as “the absence of interpersonal fear.” Really think about that. It encompasses everything about:

  • How we believe we might be perceived
  • How that belief is rooted in what we see and experience
  • How that belief impacts our wellbeing and performance at work

It’s all well and good to say we shouldn’t care what other people think, but the reality is that what people think about us at work has a direct impact on our success. Having psychological safety – an absence of interpersonal fear – frees people up to use the fullness of their strengths and talents. It empowers progress and innovation. 

In her amazing TEDx Talk, Amy Edmonson – professor of leadership at Harvard Business School, and the person who coined the phrase “psychological safety” – refers to it as letting up on the brakes. You absolutely still want to motivate people, hold them accountable and nudge them toward their fullest potential, but you also must remove the things holding them back from actually doing that. 

Taking your foot off the brakes means actively working to dismantle the fears, beliefs, expectations and mental models that keep everyone stuck.

What it comes down to, Edmondson says, is that no one wants to appear ignorant, incompetent, intrusive or negative. That’s the interpersonal fear and it drives people to put their energy into “impression management”, which is easy to do by simply never speaking up, disagreeing, asking for help, or challenging the status quo. 

The belief that speaking openly could mean looking ignorant, incompetent, intrusive or negative is absolutely driven by workplace cultures. This isn’t an innate tendency to hold back; it’s people responding to their environment and their experience.

Here are some examples of what interpersonal fear and impression management might look like in the workplace:

  • Not speaking up, especially if it means disagreeing with the majority, or with a person of influence (someone in leadership or someone with greater social clout)
  • Hesitating to share or try new ideas
  • Lack of collaboration
  • Resistance to new ways of doing things
  • High-potential employees getting “stuck”
  • Focusing on solutions that will be perceived best, rather than what’s actually best
  • Feeling the need to sugarcoat bad news or negative results
  • Hiding or offloading mistakes
  • Resistance to voicing concerns

It can also manifest as interpersonal issues like gossip, toxic competitiveness, manipulation, gaslighting, and so on.

On the flip side, when a workplace has cultivated psychological safety, here are some of the qualities and habits that are empowered:

That last one is key because in many ways, speaking openly – especially with leaders – drives the other qualities and ways of being.

The Link Between Psychological Safety and Innovation

“Unfortunately, in many organizations, it is emotionally, politically, socially and economically expensive to say what people really think.” (Rashmi Fernandes, Agile Leadership Journey)

Think about what that statement means in terms of innovation. With those brakes on, the ideas, brainstorming, troubleshooting and creativity that naturally arise from open communication don’t have the opportunity to come up, and your team and organization stay locked in the status quo.

In addition to stifled communication, people are also hesitant to explore and try anything outside the box. It all comes back to not wanting to look ignorant, incompetent, intrusive or negative. The cost is too high.

Innovation demands a willingness to fail, so when only excellence is rewarded or recognized, or when failures and mistakes are met with shame or other negative reactions, that reinforces avoiding innovation. It creates a culture of interpersonal fear where it’s safer to stay inside comfort zones.

In order to innovate, people must be willing to take “the interpersonal risks of learning,” as Edmonson terms it. They have to believe, fully, that it is safe to fail and that they won’t be seen as ignorant, incompetent, intrusive or negative for trying.

When my son was little and picky about eating, I would always applaud him for trying a new food, regardless of whether or not he ended up liking it. The outcome didn’t matter; the trying is what counted. As a result, he was open to trying many things, which meant he discovered many foods he didn’t like, but also several he really enjoyed.

It’s the same idea with fostering innovation. Applauding the trying will absolutely result in more failures and mistakes. Those are inevitable. Let go of the outcomes. Continually applaud the trying, regardless of how it works out, and you will drive so much more success and progress than if you only applaud success and progress.

Why Aren’t Your Efforts Working?

Maybe you’ve told people it’s safe, implemented a campaign, hosted a workshop, and continually repeated the message that speaking openly and making mistakes is welcome… And nothing’s changed. Why not??

Here’s the thing: people believe what they experience over what they’re told

Sounds like common sense, right? But, far too often, organizations will say one thing, but create, foster or enable an experience that is totally different, even without realizing it. When employees don’t see something like this practiced at the leadership level first and consistently, they’re far less likely to adopt the initiative themselves. Worse still, when leadership fails to “walk their own talk”, it feels like a broken promise, which is a common cause of disengagement.

When it comes to psychological safety, it can only truly be initiated from the top because leadership always sets the tone for what’s safe, whether they do so intentionally or not.

Systems aren’t changed overnight, and neither is our way of being.

Put the bulk of your efforts into leadership, with the intention that your leaders will learn how to create psychological safety for the people they lead. Whether this is something you do fully in-house, or you engage external coaching, focus on ensuring your leaders gain the skills to create cultures of safety, are committed to doing so, and are actively putting concrete strategies into practice.

Leaders drive the culture. That’s where you need to make the biggest shift to ensure psychological safety is created for everyone, and the organization begins to see change.

How to Create Psychological Safety

McKinsey highlights three key skills for leaders to develop in order to begin creating psychological safety within their teams:

  1. Open-dialogue – The ability to explore conflict and initiate authentic conversations.
  2. Sponsorship – Putting the needs and success of others ahead of your own; sometimes known as servant leadership.
  3. Situational humility – A continual approach of curiosity, vulnerability, and readiness to learn and grow on a personal level.

These skills cultivate trust between leaders and the people they lead, and trust is critical to creating psychological safety. It’s when employees start to truly believe that it’s safe to speak openly and step outside the box.

Honing these three skills within your leadership team will establish the groundwork for creating psychological safety because, once again, it’s your leaders who set the tone for what is safe. How leaders interact with the people they lead, and how they respond when things go wrong or during times of chaos or uncertainty is what creates (or impedes) psychological safety.

For your leaders to truly embody these skills, invest in their emotional development as part of their professional development. Leaders need to feel comfortable having difficult conversations and owning their areas of struggle. That’s not easy to do, so be prepared to really dig in and excavate some hard truths with your leadership team.

5 Strategies to Foster Open Communication and Trust Among Team Members

Open communication (or open-dialogue) is at the heart of psychological safety. If truly open communication isn’t currently built into your culture, it will be a challenge to achieve. To be able to communicate openly, people need to believe that it’s safe to do so. On the other hand, in order to believe that it’s safe, they need to have positive experiences of open communication. Chicken or egg?

Because of this, leaders must be prepared to initiate open communication in a variety of ways and situations, be prepared for progress to be slow and sputtered, and be committed to consistency, especially in the early stages when it might look like your efforts aren’t getting anywhere. 

Trust and openness will not take off in just a few tries. It will take time, intention and commitment. There will be setbacks, failures and frustrations. Leaders must commit to seeing it through.

The following are 5 strategies to foster open communication and trust. These strategies will show results IF you are consistent and committed, even when it feels like a one-sided effort:

  • Get curious about the values and goals of individuals

    This article points out that when someone is first hired, they learn about the company’s purpose, values and objectives. Rarely does the company put much effort into learning the purpose, values and objectives of the new employee.
    It’s often expected that employees should align their goals with company goals, but it actually needs to be a two-way street if we want people to be truly engaged, motivated and bringing their best to the work that they do.
    It’s never too late to have these conversations and really get to know what matters to the people you lead. This opens up communication, builds connection, and gives insight into how you can tailor development initiatives for optimal outcomes.
    If an employee is struggling to define their purpose, values or goals, that’s a great opportunity to steer them toward coaching or mentoring, which is not only in the company’s best interests, but also sends the message that, as a leader, you are there for their growth, not just their success. That builds trust and nudges those communication doors open even more.

  • Act on feedback long term

    Trust is so important to psychological safety. Often, when companies first start inviting feedback – either through surveys, anonymous suggestions, open meetings, etc – they will look for low hanging fruit to act on first. That can be a good strategy as it displays a willingness to change and an openness to input.
    However, far too often, those quick wins become the only thing acted on. Worse still, some organizations will abandon change altogether thinking that the first burst is enough to make people happy. This comes across as a broken promise and that’s a surefire way to fuel disengagement.
    By all means go for some low hanging fruit, or quick wins. Then start getting your hands dirty. Dig into bigger issues and, most impactfully, be open about progress.

  • Focus on daily habits

    Daily habits are what create corporate culture. Sure, there are benefits to team building events, rewards, periodic workshops, and so on. But those things are really only beneficial when there’s a foundation of supportive daily habits to build from.
    What that means is, regular, even casual recognition of open communication in day-to-day life. That could sound like, “I appreciate you bringing up another side to this”, “You got us thinking about different angles and that’s important”, or “Thank you for not backing down today. Courage like that pushes us all to be better.”
    Daily habits that foster communication can also mean leaders not shying away from tough topics or sharing their own struggles on a regular basis – “I feel like I’m really off the ball today,” “I’m nervous about this meeting coming up,” “I set this goal and I’m not making the progress I’d hoped for” – and regularly checking in with the people they lead – “You seem fired up today! What’s got your interest?” “You’ve got a lot on your plate this week. What can I help with?” “You seem frustrated lately. Is there anything you’d like to talk about?”
    Daily habits are going to inform the transformation of your culture more than anything. As a leader, start each day by setting your intention, and end the day by reflecting on how you showed up. Let go of outcomes and focus on what you do control: you.

  • Make self-management your #1 priority

    At a basic level, self-management means the ability, and willingness, to:
          –  Objectively assess your own thoughts, emotions and behaviors
          –  Understand their impact on you and the people around you
          –  Proactively regulate and adjust your thoughts, emotions and behaviors
    Because leaders set the tone for safety, self-management is beyond critical. If you are not successfully managing your own thoughts, emotions and behaviors, you simply are not a person of psychological safety, and open communication cannot thrive within your leadership.
    Don’t expect perfection from yourself, but do be open with the people you lead about any missteps or challenges you’re facing. Showing them that you’re working on yourself and openly experiencing struggles increases trust and makes you a safe person to be human with.

  • Practice level three listening

    The Co-Active Training Institute outlines three levels of listening.
    At level one, we hear what someone is saying, but we’re really only listening to ourselves by filtering everything through our own lens or agenda. It’s a disengaged form of listening where we aren’t putting much effort into understanding.
    At level two, we’re fully focused on what the other person is saying and putting genuine effort into understanding.
    At level three, we have that full listening engagement of level two, but now we’re also tuned into the unsaid – things like body language, gaze, energy levels, hesitations, changes in tone, and so on.
    Level three listening really draws people in and makes them feel heard, understood and safe in what they have to say. It’s a technique that takes a lot of practice, but when done right, it’s so powerful in its impact.

What are Some Examples of Creating Psychological Safety?

What might some of these strategies and skills look like in practice? Here are a few examples:

Making multiple communication channels available

A psychologically safe organization makes multiple channels for communication available, understanding that everyone has different comfort levels, and it’s the communicating that matters most, not whether or not someone says things face-to-face, for example.

In such companies, leaders also make use of those channels themselves. If someone isn’t approaching them, they make a point to reach out and try different channels to see what people seem most comfortable with. 

Being transparent about terminations

When a psychologically safe organization must terminate someone’s employment, they commit to transparency with their remaining employees because they know that when it comes to fear at work, the fear of being fired or receiving a negative review is real. 

These companies don’t violate privacy, but they do speak at a higher level about what led to the termination. They know that when we keep quiet, rumors start and that feeds interpersonal fear so fast.

Here are some in-depth tips on how to terminate employment respectfully.

Implementing daily check-ins for your leadership team

Safe companies hold people accountable. A daily check-in such as a quick call, Zoom or in-person meeting for leaders to quickly share what they did yesterday in terms of fostering open communication, what they plan to do today, and if they are experiencing any challenges or roadblocks (similar to a daily scrum) holds everyone accountable for creating change within their teams.

This can be a powerful technique for keeping leaders engaged and motivated in adopting an approach of psychological safety, and shows other employees that the company is actively committed to change. It’s also an opportunity for leaders to get that critical practice of sharing vulnerabilities, which gives them a sense of what their employees may be feeling, which can help open up new perspectives on how to lead better.

Willingness to ask for help

Psychologically safe companies know that asking for help has many benefits and recognize that people have to feel safe doing so before they will ask for help.

Strong leaders may create safety by doing this themselves. They commit to asking for help – from the people they lead, their peers, those above them, and even outside support like a mentor or coach. They make sure to let their employees see them asking for help, tell them when they’ll be seeking support, and share their experiences of being helped. 

They may also continually ask the people they lead how they can help them, and may reframe it as “I” requests. For example, “How can I be useful here?” or “What can I contribute?” This takes the pressure off of people so that, instead of asking for help directly (which they may fear makes them look ignorant, incompetent, intrusive or negative), they’re responding to their boss’s request to be involved.

The Bottom Line

Companies do better when they make psychological safety a priority. When you have psychological safety, it takes the brakes off of all the good things you want and need in order to thrive as an organization: innovation, creativity, adaptability, and so much more. But, it has to be fully adopted by leadership first so that they have the skills and openness to create it for their teams.

If you would like to discuss how your organization can prioritize psychological safety, I invite you to connect with me.