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Psychological Safety: important now more than ever before

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest achievement,” uttered poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. These words of wisdom touch on an increasingly popular concept in employee wellbeing research called ‘psychological safety.’ Coined by Amy Edmonson in 1999, the term refers to “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” To highlight its importance, in 2015 Google revealed the results of a 2-year internal study: psychological safety was the biggest predictor of team performance. So, what does it mean exactly to feel psychologically safe at work? Why is it so prevalent? And what can companies do to increase psychological safety in their workplace?

The philosophy

Psychological safety “isn’t about being nice,” Edmonson claims, “it’s about giving candid feedback, openly admitting mistakes and learning from each other.” This touches on the two key branches to psychological safety: vulnerability and authenticity. Beginning with the former, it’s completely natural to want to look good in front of your colleagues, be agreeable with your manager and divert blame for a mistake. These instincts are even more heightened in companies with hierarchies, which are widespread. However, Edmonson believes that we should own our mistakes and not penalise people for theirs. We feel bad enough when we mess up, we don’t need others to point it out. Instead, we need to be compassionate towards ourselves and our team, and channel our energies into resolving the situation. She points out that leaders must pave the way by showing humility, fallibility, interest and curiosity. Creating such an environment will no doubt initially cause discomfort because it invites the potential for criticism, which is threatening for any human. However, by asking for help, taking risks and admitting your faults, we also embrace courage and honesty which fuels productivity. Regarding the latter, authenticity, we are often told at some point or another “just be yourself”, and this will lead to a happy and successful existence. Indeed, for centuries, philosophers and psychologists have urged us to live an authentic life, but at work, many of us still wear masks. Psychological safety does not ask us to reveal our secrets, but rather stop behaving in ways which contradict our true nature for the sake of professionalism. Keeping up this act can be exhausting, whereas being ourselves can be liberating. Indeed, the science behind psychological safety is further support for its significance in employee wellbeing…

The science

So why the sudden surge in conversations around psychological safety? First, it has a positive impact on the learning process, which is why, according to Edmonson and Lei (2014), it has continued to be of interest to wellbeing scholars. Second, this team also found that people can achieve optimal development in the workplace because they are more willing to take interpersonal risks without feeling a threat to their identity. Third, studies have shown that experienced authenticity, which relates to an individual’s internal state, has been shown to improve wellbeing. Specifically, when behaviour is guided by personal values, our sense of self-worth increases because it is rooted in the true self rather than based on the success or failure of external standards. Fourth, experienced authenticity improves our work engagement. According to research, this is because if our work persona aligns with our true self, then we find it easier to draw more fully on all our personal resources in the workplace. In light of this evidence highlighting the benefits of psychological safety, it is not hard to see why it has become a focus for organisational psychologists in recent years. However, Ipsos (2012) conducted a survey indicating that only 47% of employees felt psychologically safe at work. So, what advice is there on increasing this figure?

The practical

Following on from their insightful study, Google provide some suggestions for fostering psychological safety at work:

Demonstrate engagement

  • Be present and focus on the conversation. It’s very easy for us to split our attention between a laptop or phone and the speaker.
  • Respond verbally to show your engagement, e.g. “That makes sense” or “tell us more.”

Show understanding

  • Recap what’s been said to confirm mutual understanding, e.g. “What I heard you say is…”. This will help highlight areas of agreement or disagreement.
  • Avoid placing blame, e.g. “Why did you do this?” and focus on solutions, e.g. “What can we do together to make a game plan for next time?”

Be inclusive in interpersonal settings

  • Share information about your personal work style and preferences, and encourage teammates to do the same.
  • Express gratitude for contributions to the team.
  • Clearly communicate the purpose of meetings.
  • Be available and approachable to your team such as making time for 1:1 conversations.

Be inclusive in decision-making

  • Don’t interrupt or allow interruptions, e.g. step in when someone is interrupted and ensure their idea is heard.
  • Explain reasoning behind your decisions whether live or via email.
  • Solicit input, opinions and feedback.

Show confidence and conviction without appearing inflexible

  • Invite the team to challenge your perspective and push back
  • Model vulnerability and risk taking by sharing your personal perspective and failures
  • Support and represent the team by sharing your team’s work with senior leadership and give credit to teammates.

To close, we’ll leave you with a useful reflection called “Just Like Me” by Google’s Head of Industry, Paul Santagata. He uses it to remind his team that even during the trickiest negotiations, the other party are just like them, and so it’s crucial to consider:

  • This person has beliefs, perspectives, and opinions, just like me.
  • This person has hopes, anxieties, and vulnerabilities, just like me.
  • This person has friends, family, and perhaps children who love them, just like me.
  • This person wants to feel respected, appreciated, and competent, just like me.
  • This person wishes for peace, joy, and happiness, just like me.