The concept of psychological safety, according to William A. Khan in his 1990 paper on personal engagement and disengagement at work, is “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career.”
The actual term was coined as early as 1999 by Amy Edmondson but popularly cited from her 2002 paper on the subject. She explains, “In psychologically safe environments, people believe that if they make a mistake, others will not penalize or think less of them for it. They also believe that others will not resent or penalize them for asking for help, information or feedback. This belief fosters the confidence to take the risks described above and thereby to gain from the associated benefits of learning.”
It has become readily apparent in today’s technologically intensive and rapidly changing business landscape that conditions that will support the psychological safety of all employees in an organization are necessary for ongoing success. Despite this, there are companies out there that haven’t yet embraced this philosophy.
Have you ever worked for an organization that had no intention of providing even cursory psychological safety? If you haven’t, you probably know someone who has.
I know a manager who worked at an international company for three years. This organization proclaimed its values were diversity, truthfulness and trust. Posters in the hallways promoted this, and performance reviews were graded on it.
Unfortunately, it was, for the most part, a myth. When the results of the annual, center-wide, “anonymous” survey came out, middle management was routinely criticized for the dismal employee ratings for the statement, “I trust management, and feel safe expressing my ideas and concerns.” Then middle management was chastised a second time for the dismal survey ratings they gave upper management for the same statement.
Upper management never seemed to understand the irony: Middle management was being routinely reproved for expressing their ideas and concerns in an anonymous survey. Despite the obvious remedy of listening to employees without inflicting repercussions, upper management never made any attempt to solve this ongoing problem.
Elbert Green Hubbard said, “The greatest mistake you can make in life is continually fearing that you’ll make one.” Without psychological safety in the workplace, it is all too easy to become discouraged and simply move on to a hopefully more supportive organization. Employees now have the benefit of obtaining instant information on a place of work from the internet. With employee review sites such as Glassdoor, Indeed and FairyGodBoss, it’s easier than ever to get a preview of what a company’s culture is really like, as opposed to what they claim to be like on the “About Us” page of their own website.
If a firm is truly interested in fostering innovation, teamwork and accelerated productivity, there are steps they can take to foster an environment of psychological safety.
Understand that mistakes can and will be made without fear of retribution or consequences. Mistakes simply need to be acknowledged. They can then be used as a springboard for new ideas.
Make sure everyone is heard. Do the same three people voice all the opinions or ideas at every meeting? Encourage wider participation. Reticent team members may need encouragement to speak up. They may only feel comfortable answering a direct question. In meetings, no one is allowed to interrupt or belittle another speaker. Opinions and ideas are valuable and may come from the most unlikely members.
Encourage questions and feedback. Are you unconsciously doing or saying something that is impeding the process? If no one feels safe speaking up, you’ll never know.
Develop trust between participants by sharing. Team members can relate to personal stories, triumphs and challenges. Forming a group bond is important in developing a cooperative environment that encourages participation.
Active listening is important to really hear what the other team members are trying to convey. This is no time to be checking the calendar on your cell phone. It’s OK to ask questions or request a clarification on a participant’s idea. Be open to hearing opinions other than your own.
Diversity in mindset is necessary for success. If everyone on the team thinks the same, there is no impetus to try anything new or different, and stagnation will be the result. Having a team that includes different viewpoints is essential for innovation.
If your organization doesn’t have a culture of psychological safety, it can be a big change to implement, and a bit daunting. There are many good books and articles with information on the subject that can offer ideas and support for converting the mindset of your organization. The results of providing a safe and supportive organizational culture can be amazing.
This article has previously been featured on Forbes