Four things leaders can do to improve psychological safety

Amanda Fajak

Creating an environment where people can feel psychologically safe and can speak up is fast becoming one of the main topics of conversation as I talk to HR and OD people across all industries. Why is this so? It has long been recognised that if you can create an environment where people can bring all of themselves to work then it is possible to create thriving organisations where the full potential of every person in the business is realised.

Psychological safety in the workplace

Despite a recognition for many years of the value of everyone being able to be fully present at work, we have instead seen a rise in fear in organisations – fear of failure; fear of making a mistake; fear of speaking up – which contributes to people holding back and protecting themselves.

Amy Edmondson from Harvard University uses the term psychological safety to describe "a climate in which people are comfortable being (and expressing) themselves." Psychologically safe environments exude “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up’’.

Why does this matter? Gallup data reveals that just three in 10 U.S. workers strongly agree that at work, their opinions seem to count. However, by moving that ratio to six in 10 employees, organisations could realise a 27% reduction in turnover, a 40% reduction in safety incidents and a 12% increase in productivity.

An internal study conducted by Google found that teams with high rates of psychological safety were better than other teams at implementing diverse ideas and driving high performance. They were also more likely to stay with the company.

So why are we moving backwards? Regulation has in some part contributed to this backward movement. Organisations in trying to meet demands of the regulator have over emphasised the need to not make a mistake, to not be the one to put your organisation at risk, but it’s not the whole story.

Busyness, unrealistic targets, 24/7 business means that as leaders efficiency over people remains a reality. As quoted in the Google research “We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy. We can’t be focused just on efficiency.”

I would add to this that despite the significant investment in leadership development to date there has not been a significant enough shift towards authentic leadership - helping leaders break the myth of the strong leader who has all the answers. As I interact with leaders across all industries, the shields of invulnerability and protection are still firmly in place and many leaders feel that they need to be to survive. Being open and vulnerable, being true to yourself as a leader is still not socially acceptable and there are still too many masks being worn. Leaders role model behaviour for others and in this way contribute to the lack of psychological safety in organisations.

Given its importance here are four practical things leaders can do to increase psychological safety:

  1. Increase self-disclosure – make it easier for people to share their fears and concerns with you
    • Where a leader is prepared to be open and share that they are not perfect it allows space for others to voice their own fears, concerns and not be perfect. Try regularly introducing the following into your language with your team: ‘I do not have all the answers’; “I need to hear from you because I’m likely to miss things”; “what am I missing?”; “can you see a better way?” “what is wrong with my assumptions – can you see anything I have missed?”
    • It might even be appropriate to share an instance when you made mistake and how you rectified it. Encourage others to talk about their mistakes and how they learnt from them
  2. Be accessible – consider how you use your time and how you are available to your team
    • Reduce barriers to people connecting – PAs, doors, make sure people have your mobile and email address and make it clear to them that it is ok to contact you.
    • Walk the floor; visit offices; connect face to face whenever practical. Each day walk into the office a different way so you get to interact with different people – do the same when you visit other offices.
    • Make time in the day/week where people know that they can contact you, for example my team are all virtual and know that after I drop my son at school every day there is a 30 minute window where they can catch me and check in/share concerns. It’s our ‘chew the fat’ time.
  3. Be interested in your team - Listen and be curious
    • Notice subtle hints that people are anxious or fearful, check in with them, be interested in them, try to understand how you can support them
    • Take turns in conversation – listen, ask questions. Count to 10 before talking so you don’t dominate the conversation.
    • Play back what you have heard people say so that they really feel heard and that saying something to you matters
  4. Take the fear out of mistakes
    • In developing a psychological safe environment, you must also send a message that ‘we have standards’. “Psychological safety means no one, in the service of reaching performance goals, will be punished for small mistakes, or asking for help.”
    • Reframe what making a mistake is – rather than focussing on blame for the mistake, focus on the learning or what can be done to avoid the mistake in the future. I love the frame of Lego CEO Jorgen Vig Knudstorp: “Blame is not for failure, it is for failing to help or ask for help”. For me this beautifully shifts people to focus on the behaviour of asking for help which will prevent mistakes in the future.

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