Improving Engagement & Performance with Psychological Safety

psychological safety
What is psychological safety and how do you build it in your workplace?

The term psychological safety has gained traction over the last few years as we have traversed the changing landscape of the modern workplace. But really, this is the seed where all flourishing workplace cultures need to grow from. Psychological safety is the single most important factor in high performance teams; a fact that is being recognised by more and more companies across the globe.

If you are sitting there thinking, “Well what actually is this?” then let me explain: The term psychological safety was coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson. She defines it as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” Establishing a climate of psychological safety allows space for people to speak up and share their ideas. This means environments where staff are supported to contribute to the strategic and operational workings of the business, where collaboration is fostered, and strengths and expertise utilised and where people feel valued and part of the big picture.

Timothy R. Clark describes four stages of psychological safety that teams can move through:

The first stage is inclusion safety. We all want to feel included. We long to belong. We humans need to be accepted in a team before we can be heard, so essentially, the first stage is simply being comfortable being present. This stage means all members must be included and welcomed – without discrimination regarding gender, age, social background, sexual orientation, neurodiversity or anything else.

The second stage is learner safety – and this means being able to ask questions, give and receive feedback, experiment, and make mistakes. Team members at this stage will provide feedback to each other, and ask for feedback themselves.

The third stage is contributor safety. This means being able to participate as a member of the team, contribute ideas and suggestions, and raise threats and risks using members’ individual talents and abilities to contribute to the team without fear. At this stage, retrospectives and “post-mortems” become very powerful practices.

The fourth stage is challenger safety. This means being able to challenge the way the team works, come up with new ways of working, behaviours, and challenge the ideas of others – even the ideas of senior members. This is the most powerful “stage” of psychological safety, as it not only allows new ideas to surface and learning from mistakes to occur, but it can prevent potentially bad ideas from getting to the real world.

Timothy Clark also believes a leader’s role is to increase intellectual friction and decrease social friction. Diversity in your workforce increases intellectual friction, this is great for that floury of ideas and thoughts required to solve problems, innovate and get the best outcomes.  Inclusion of each team member is key to this. Diversity is a fact (different ages, education, cultural backgrounds), inclusion is a choice, and we draw that out through the building of psychological safety. If your people feel safe and there’s no fear of ridicule or retribution, then the intellectual diversity comes to the surface.

When we don’t have psychological safety our self-sensory instincts kick in. There is literally a neurological response, our amygdala kicks in with our fight or flight response sending blood away from our thinking part of the brain. This means that we shut down, go into self-preservation mode, our wellbeing suffers, we are less resilient and more stressed.

In contrast when your workplace feels challenging but not threatening, your brain’s oxytocin levels rise, eliciting trust and trust-making behaviour. This is a huge factor in team success as it encourages speaking up because:

  • Concern is alleviated about others’ reactions
  • Energy isn’t wasted on fear-based behaviours, so clarity of thought is improved
  • Productive conflict is supported
  • Mistakes are readily discussed enabling failures to be mitigated
  • More novel ideas are shared promoting innovation
  • Instead of focusing on self-protection, people are focused on achieving motivating goals
  • A climate is created that increases accountability.

High psychological safety is not necessarily about being polite and nice. Rather its recognising that true respect is about saying what you think, and giving each other permission to make mistakes, get it wrong and being able to self-correct.  And having psychological safety isn’t about eliminating all risk, but by taking away interpersonal risk you can better mitigate business risk.  It also doesn’t mean you need to lower your performance standards.

You can still have high standards, high accountability and high psychological safety in your team.

So where do you start?

  • Well, it all starts from a feeling of connection and belonging. It all starts with trust. Value time for employees to build working relationships.
  • Lead with a curious mindset. Remind leaders that no one comes to work wanting to do a bad job.
  • Invite participation and value strengths. Leaders don’t and shouldn’t know it all. Use the strengths of the collective to build high performing teams.
  • Be clear on the expectations for the work. Individuals need to know exactly what kind of input is expected from them as part of the team and as an employee of the company.
  • Model fallibility and vulnerability from the top. No one wants a robotic boss. Authentic leadership that recognises their own strengths and downfalls and keeps it real sets the tone for the company culture.
  • Make it clear that building psychological safety is everyone’s business. Individual and team training around how to build psychological safety is imperative for sustainability.

At the end of the day, employee performance will improve as a result of creating a psychologically safe workplace. And employees who feel safe and engaged at work are less likely to quit. Really how can you afford not to consider really auditing the levels of psychological safety at your workplace?

Share This Post