How to create psychological safety at work
In this article, we explore the concept of psychological safety, how it applies to the workplace, and how leaders can create it.
The intersection of psychology and business yields powerful results. As a leader, it is wise to consider both when optimising the aspects of corporate life that concern your people. For example, when we consider the human dynamics at play in the modern workplace, we observe a paradox: both little evolution and infinite evolution, simultaneously. This creates obstacles that need to be overcome.
It is true that we have progressed unimaginably in terms of the ways that we interact and organise ourselves, and in the technology and tools that support us. However, our biology remains largely unchanged, which means that we are still hard-wired with many of the survival instincts that once helped us to escape predators or find shelter. This creates challenges in the workplace, as there is a disconnect between our brain chemistry and the realities of the situations we are responding to. For example, responding to a passive aggressive email, or critical feedback on a report, is nowhere near life-threatening, yet we are proven to react as if it is.
The key to overcoming this lies in creating psychological safety at work. Human relationships are complex, and the process of building trust isn’t straightforward. Therefore, it is imperative to ensure that we give individuals the optimal conditions to interact, collaborate with, and ultimately to trust, one another. We cannot consider the topic of psychological safety without immediately thinking of meetings.
When it comes to psychological safety and meetings, it is very much a two-way street. On one hand, individuals' behaviour and their reactions have a huge impact on the success of meetings. On the other hand, meetings play an important role in helping to create psychological safety. This is a key reason why our Azend® framework includes 'People' as one of its three dimensions of productive meetings.
In this article, we will explore the concept of psychological safety, how leaders can create it, and how this concept relates to meetings, in order to help your teams to thrive.
What is psychological safety?
In simple terms, psychological safety is the ability to share ideas, questions, and concerns without fear of personal repercussions. Organisational Psychologist and author Timothy R. Clark has contributed widely to the concept of psychological safety. His definition of is as follows:
A condition in which human beings feel (1) included, (2) safe to learn, (3) safe to contribute, and (4) safe to challenge the status quo – all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way.
In order for teams to be successful, they need to feel able to take risks and share their opinions freely (even if they go against the grain) without fear of personal embarrassment.
On the flipside of this coin, when human beings feel an absence of psychological safety in the workplace, a very primal set of instincts are ignited. This means that our default responses to a critical boss, competitive coworker, or dismissive subordinate can be somewhat illogical. This is explained by our brain chemistry: the amygdala, the brain’s warning beacon, is triggered, which engages an “act-first, think-later” response, bypassing analytical and logical reasoning in favour of survival instincts.2
Therefore, a lack of psychological safety at work can be hugely disruptive and not only risks suboptimal performance at both an individual and team level, but also disengagement, and potentially employee churn. In order to avoid this from happening, it is helpful to keep the myriad benefits of psychological safety front of mind.
What are the benefits of psychological safety at work?
The argument for creating psychological safety at work is a big one. Not only does it mitigate the fundamental, biological challenges that many teams face in their interpersonal relationships, it also promotes innovation, creativity, and productivity.
The key benefits of psychological safety fall into two main categories. These include:
According to the Harvard Business Review, “when the workplace feels challenging but not threatening, teams can sustain the broaden-and-build mode. Oxytocin levels in our brains rise, eliciting trust and trust-making behavior.”3
This ‘broaden-and-build’ mode is critical to curiosity, creativity, and a growth-mindset, and all of these traits help us to build social, psychological, and physical resources. Teams who operate in an environment where they have psychological safety are more resilient, motivated, and more open-minded.
Raising concerns. Early.
Psychological safety at work also ensures that employees feel able to voice their concerns. This is crucial, as the likelihood is that if one person is thinking it, then many others likely are, too. Ensuring that your employees can give honest feedback is therefore pivotal in helping you to address issues before they snowball into something much larger.
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If the positive impacts of psychological safety are so huge, why isn’t everyone creating it?
As we can see, the benefits of psychological safety at work are huge. So, what are the obstacles to psychological safety that are stopping organisations from creating it?
The answer to this is that there are a number of hurdles that make creating psychological safety at work challenging. These include:
The trust effect
The common denominator in all aspects of psychological safety is trust. Without trust, individuals fail to bring their ‘full selves’ to the table, and teams fail to communicate in an optimal way. Creating trust is therefore the first step in creating psychological safety. But trust isn’t an easy thing to foster - it is something that can be encouraged and nurtured, but is difficult (if not impossible) to force. Therefore, when it comes to creating trust, it is better to focus on cultivating an environment that supports trust building, which again, isn’t straightforward.
The virtual effect
If trust, and therefore psychological safety, is difficult to create in a physical workplace, then it is a thousand times more challenging to achieve in virtual one - such as the working environments that have become widespread as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Psychological safety also relies, in part, on detecting social cues and reading body language. This can be near-impossible in virtual working environments.
The VUCA effect
We live and work in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world, and perhaps never quite as uncertain as in the recent past. When threats to our health and economic wellbeing arise, we have more distractions (i.e. when working from home), and are confronted with widespread civil unrest, this is a challenging backdrop to create psychological safety against. Individuals are in a heightened state of anxiety, and this is a significant opponent to psychological safety as a whole.
How to create psychological safety at work
Thankfully, these obstacles can be overcome. The task of creating psychological safety in the workplace isn’t futile. Acknowledging that this is a process rather than a destination is an important first step, as is addressing the aforementioned challenges head-on.
There are five key ways to help create psychological safety in your workplace. These include:
Curiosity over blame
Curiosity is a fundamental tenet of evolution. For your people to feel psychologically safe at work, you need to promote curiosity. Not only does this drive innovation, but it also empowers your people to find new, creative, and more effective ways of solving problems and achieving objectives. This gives them personal agency in their work, creating a sense of ownership over the way that they approach their duties. Curiosity needs to replace blame in your organisational culture, where you examine causes and effects of failure as a collective, rather than assigning individual blame.
Debate and conflict: As collaborators
Promoting debate and healthy conflict is a foundational principle of psychological safety. According to Google’s Head of Industry, it is important to approach conflict and debate as a collaborator rather than an adversary.4 In order to do this, when conflict arises, simply ask the question “How could we achieve a mutually desirable outcome?” This avoids triggering a fight-or-flight response, and ensures that participants always take a constructive approach to problem solving. By doing this, an environment where debates and conflicts are kept healthy rather than descending into personal attacks or potentially triggering situations.
Examine and celebrate failure
Another key aspect of creating and promoting psychological safety at work is the approach you take to failure. If you ignore or chastise mistakes that are made, your team will seek to conceal or ignore their future failures, when the opposite is necessary. Failures are necessary steps on the path to success, and it is therefore pertinent that you acknowledge, examine, and even celebrate failure - after all, experiments and risks lead to progress and reward.5
Encouraging your people to give clear and honest feedback is another key checkpoint on the journey to psychological safety. Not only is it important for your people to feel able to voice their concerns, but they also need to regularly give feedback on how psychologically safe they feel in your working environment. This should be a deliberate process, such as regularly conducting anonymous surveys to see how willing and able your people feel when it comes to volunteering ideas and concerns, and to challenge the established status-quo.
Finally, in order for your people to feel as though they have psychological safety at work, you need to make them feel valued. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, this requires you to treat others as they like to be treated, rather than how you would like to be. If your people feel valued and respected, then they will be more likely to feel a sense of psychological security in your team. You need to put your people first, and make sure that they know it.
Key vehicles for creating psychological safety are your meetings. Let’s take a look at how business meetings can be used to make your people feel psychologically safe.
Meetings and psychological safety
Meetings are your company’s intersection, where your people come together in order to exchange ideas, make decisions, and collaborate, all in real time. As leaders, meetings are perhaps your most important instrument, allowing you to connect with your team, and ensure that outcomes are achieved and initiatives are driven forward.
They are also among the most effective ways of interacting as humans, which plays a very important role in making your people feel secure, valued, and ultimately, safe in their positions. This has become even more important with the widespread adoption of remote working.
Our Azend® framework is backed up by research and aims to help organisations to hold productive meetings. Azend® is based on the latest research in the field of meeting science, and places a great deal of importance on optimising the human aspects of your meetings. In fact, one of the three dimensions of Azend® is ‘People’, which is broken down into three core building blocks:
- Norms, and
Let’s consider each of these separately:
Your people cannot interact effectively without an organisational commitment to meeting productivity. This involves taking an earnest look at how your meetings currently perform and the social dynamics that exist, and committing to addressing any areas that need to be improved. Psychological safety should be a core criteria against which your meetings are evaluated, as without your people feeling psychologically safe, it is impossible for your meetings to achieve optimal results.
In many ways, meeting norms can be considered as the ground rules for your meeting. How do you expect your teams to interact during meetings? What behaviour is appropriate? What is unacceptable? Without meeting norms firmly agreed and put in place, you risk creating an environment where negative spirals can take place, and where feelings of psychological safety sail out of the window. Ultimately, your meeting norms help you to create space for everyone to contribute. This allows them to share ideas and raise concerns openly - which, as we have already seen, is fundamental to creating psychological safety in the workplace.
At this stage, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this process sounds somewhat insurmountable. That’s because leaders need to receive appropriate training and support in order to be able to lead meetings in a productive and psychologically safe way. The Azend® framework outlines this clearly, encouraging organisations to view meeting facilitation as a development area for their leaders. Meetings are no different to other areas of leadership communication, and as such need the necessary coaching in order for individuals to be able to lead meetings in a way that promotes productivity and psychological safety.
Psychological safety: A vital foundation for collaboration
Before your team can achieve its full potential, it is imperative that you create the conditions for successful collaboration. Psychological safety in the workplace is therefore a fundamental prerequisite in ensuring your organisation can achieve its goals.
Without psychological safety, you are potentially perpetuating an organisational culture that limits creativity and innovation, and that risks triggering unhelpful and disruptive emotional responses in your people. The latter is destructive at both an organisational and a personal level.
Through simple steps, you are able to overcome the obstacles that lay between your organisation and a psychologically safe environment, one that supports both the wellbeing and performance of your team.
Therefore, the question you should be asking yourself is not whether you can afford to create psychological safety, it is whether you can afford to continue without it.
1 ‘The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety’, Timothy R. Clark, 2020.
2 ‘High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s How to Create It’, L. Delizonna, HBR, 2017.
3 L. Delizonna, HBR, 2017.
4 L. Delizonna, HBR, 2017.
5 ‘The Most Creative Companies Are the Ones That Celebrate Failure. Here's How To Do It Effectively’, A. Acton, INC., 2020.