Safety at work has been the hallmark of organizational development for well over two hundred years. From the rise of the labor movement during the industrial revolution to the inception of regulations addressing chemical safety, keeping workers away from harm while performing their jobs has been a pressing need.
But what about psychological safety at work? What is the responsibility of the organization to provide an environment where their employees can be open and vulnerable without fear of embarrassment or, worse, retribution? Psychological safety is an environment in which people are comfortable being and expressing themselves. When personnel trust others, they feel psychologically safe enough to take the risk associated with sharing ideas.
In organizations that put people first, psychological safety is not only the right thing to do, it can also have meaningful consequences on organizational outcomes. When employees feel psychologically safe, they are more likely to contribute their ideas and support others. When they contribute ideas that are new and innovative, even if those ideas are not implemented, they raise the bar for team performance. It also means they feel comfortable speaking up about problems or risks without fear of retribution. The payoff for the organization can be great because individuals are able to safely share both problems that need to be addressed and opportunities for creativity and growth.
Leaders play a big role in creating an environment of psychological safety. The building blocks of this effort draw upon two critical mindsets: inclusivity and growth. When leaders embrace these mindsets, they lay the foundation for an environment in which psychological safety is possible.
When a leader adopts an inclusive mindset, they embrace the thoughts and opinions of all members of the team. It’s about more than permitting differences; it’s about actively seeking them as a way to spur conversation and innovation. An inclusive leader recognizes that the best ideas don’t necessarily come from the same people and ensures that all voices on their team are heard.
A leader with an inclusive mindset might be operating on two levels during a team meeting. At the tactical level, they want the meeting to run smoothly and cover important topics. At the psychological level, the leader needs to monitor the group dynamics and be mindful of the participation of each team member. A groundbreaking study by Google showed that teams in which all members spoke an equal amount during their time together enhanced the presence of psychological safety.
When a leader adopts a growth mindset, they create an environment where all ideas, even bad ones, are allowable. Leaders with a growth mindset see failures or setbacks as opportunities to learn and grow. They understand that criticism of ideas, whether explicit or implicit, is one of the fastest ways to stifle contributions. When a leader gives space to ideas that might seem silly, nontraditional, or decidedly against the group consensus, they provide fertile ground for growth.
A leader with a growth mindset encourages all ideas to be surfaced, values them and the individual who contributes them, and considers the ideas equally valuable even if they are not ultimately implemented. To make this happen, leaders need to operate on another level. As a new idea surfaces, they need to not only moderate their own reaction, but also be mindful of what the team members are feeling as others respond to their ideas. In short, leaders need to tap into the skills of emotional intelligence; to be aware of, control, and express their emotions; and to handle interpersonal relationships empathetically. When leaders apply these skills, they send the message that team members don’t need to be like everyone else, and they don’t need to be perfect to contribute to the team.
Improving psychological safety at work has been brought to the forefront of many organizations, and it’s likely interest in it will grow—and for good reason. When organizations build teams in which individuals feel comfortable contributing all that they can without hesitation, it’s a situation where everyone benefits. Full contribution, combined with maximum personal satisfaction, is the definition of an engaged workforce.