We’ve probably all seen the depiction of the villainous boss who rules by fear and the stressed-out worker at their desk, eyes bulging and sweat dripping. Unfortunately, too many of us have experienced this. What is even worse is that many managers still believe in the power of fear to motivate. They assume that people who are afraid of management or of the negative consequences of underperforming will work extra hard to avoid unpleasant repercussions and the desired productivity will be the result.
It doesn’t work that way.
Fear is not an effective motivator in most jobs, where learning and collaboration are required for success. In fact, neuroscience shows fear puts the brain and body in “fight or flight” mode which impairs cognitive functioning. It turns out that how psychologically safe a person feels strongly influences their propensity to engage in learning behaviors, such as information sharing, asking for help, or experimenting which, in turn, can greatly impact their ability to be successful and productive.
What Is Psychological Safety?
Psychological safety is the belief that the work environment is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. When a workplace is psychologically safe, people feel comfortable being themselves. In a safe environment, a person feels as if they are able to speak up with ideas, questions, or concerns which are relevant to them.
Psychological safety exists when coworkers and management trust and respect each other and feel able to be authentic and candid. In psychologically safe environments, people believe that if they make a mistake or ask for help, others will not react poorly and impose unjust consequences. According to the Forbes article, How Psychological Safety Actually Works:
What psychological safety actually means, according to author Shane Snow, is knowing that the things you say and do won’t be used against you — as long as you mean well. Assuming good intent is foundational in fostering this environment.”
The Dimensions of Psychological Safety
Professor Amy C. Edmondson of Harvard Business School coined the term psychological safety and outlines four dimensions to measure it. Using these questions, you can assess your workplace:
- What is the degree to which it is permissible to make mistakes?
- To what degree can difficult and sensitive topics be discussed openly?
- How much are people willing to help each other?
- To what degree can you be yourself and are welcomed for this?
Edmonson says, “People should feel like they can ask questions, raise concerns, and pitch ideas without undue repercussions.” Speaking up should feel like the right thing to do and be welcomed and valued by colleagues. The Fearless Organization Scan is a self-assessment you can take to gauge the safety of your organization.
Why is a Psychologically Safe Workplace Important?
Studies on psychological safety point to numerous wide-ranging benefits.
The Benefits of Diversity
Research repeatedly shows that organizations benefit from diversity of thought. Groups of people with different life and work experiences are better able to recognize problems and come up with creative solutions than groups with similar experiences. Unfortunately, in the workplace, many people feel uncomfortable speaking up. They are afraid to share their thoughts and concerns and may not ask tough but important questions that would benefit the organization. People avoid suggesting innovative ideas because they’re worried about negative reactions.
Research shows that there are three primary benefits of diversity in the workplace:
- Diverse teams boost creativity and innovation.
- Workplace diversity creates greater opportunities for professional growth.
- Diversity allows for better decision-making.
Psychological Safety Improves Productivity
A 2017 Gallup report found that if organizations increase psychological safety, it makes employees more engaged in their work and can lead to a 12% increase in productivity. In 2015, when Google studied its employees to determine “what makes a good team,” researchers found that psychological safety was the most important quality that determined a team’s success.
A Fearful Brain Is Not a Productive Brain
Fear activates the stress response in the brain which actually shuts down the frontal lobe, the “thinking” brain. Being in “fight or flight” mode directs physiologic resources away from the parts of the brain that manage working memory and process new information. This impairs analytic thinking, creative insight, and problem-solving. When they are afraid, people cannot do their best work.
How to Create More Psychological Safety at Work
According to the article, What Is Psychological Safety at Work?, here’s how to help create a psychologically safe workplace.
- Make psychological safety an explicit priority.
Talk about the importance of creating psychological safety at work, connecting it to a higher purpose of promoting greater organizational innovation, team engagement, and a sense of inclusion. Model the behaviors you want to see and set the stage by showing empathy in the workplace.
- Facilitate everyone speaking up.
Show genuine curiosity, and honor candor and truth-telling. Be open-minded, compassionate, and empathetic when someone is brave enough to say something challenging the status quo. Organizations with a coaching culture will more likely have team members with the courage to speak the truth.
- Establish norms for how failure is handled.
Don’t punish experimentation and (reasonable) risk-taking. Encourage learning from failure and disappointment, and openly share your hard-won lessons learned from mistakes. Doing so will help encourage innovation, instead of sabotaging it.
- Create space for new ideas (even wild ones).
When challenging an idea, provide the challenge in the larger context of support. Consider whether you only want ideas that have been thoroughly tested, or whether you’re willing to accept highly creative, out-of-the-box ideas that are not yet well-formulated. Learn how to embrace new ideas to foster more innovative mindsets on your team.
- Embrace productive conflict.
Promote dialogue and productive debate, and work to resolve conflicts productively. Leaders can set the stage for incremental change by establishing team expectations for factors that contribute to psychological safety. With your team, discuss the following questions:
- How will team members communicate their concerns about a process that isn’t working?
- How can reservations be shared with colleagues in a respectful manner?
- What are our norms for managing conflicting perspectives?
Team Members Can Foster Psychological Safety at Work, Too
While leaders play a large role in shaping their organization’s culture, it’s also up to each team member to help build a psychologically safe climate at work. According to the Center for Creative Leadership, team members can take the following steps to promote productive dialog and debate and a supportive, safe workplace:
- Ask colleagues powerful, open-ended questions, and then listen actively and intently to understand feelings and values, as well as facts.
- Agree to share failures, recognizing that mistakes are an opportunity to learn and grow.
- Use candor, whether expressing appreciation or disappointment.
- Ask for help, and freely give help when asked.
- Embrace expertise among many, versus a single “hero” mentality.
- Encourage and express gratitude, which reinforces your team members’ sense of self.
If you want your employees to be satisfied, empowered, engaged motivated, creative, innovative, candid, open, growth-oriented, eager to learn and share information, and higher-performing, you will want to create a workplace and social climate that fosters trust and psychological safety among and between management and workers. Doing so has real benefits for the organization and individuals.
Here’s an informative TED Talk, Building a psychologically safe workplace, by Amy Edmundson: