What Is Psychological Safety at Work? How Leaders Can Build Psychologically Safe Workplaces?
There are key steps that will help leaders build greater psychological safety in the workplace, so their teams are more successful and engaged.
What Is Psychological Safety at Work?
Psychological safety is the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. At work, it’s a shared expectation held by members of a team that teammates will not embarrass, reject, or punish them for sharing ideas, taking risks, or soliciting feedback.
Psychological safety at work doesn’t mean that everybody is nice to each other all the time. It means that people feel free to “brainstorm out loud,” voice half-finished thoughts, openly challenge the status quo, share feedback, and work through disagreements together — knowing that leaders value honesty, candor, and truth-telling, and that team members will have one another’s backs.
When psychological safety in the workplace is present, people feel comfortable bringing their full, authentic selves to work and are okay with “laying themselves on the line” in front of others. And organizations with psychologically safe work environments — where employees feel free to ask bold questions, share concerns, ask for help, and take calculated risks — are all the better for it.
In a research study we conducted of nearly 13000 leaders over 4.5 years, we found that teams with high degrees of psychological safety reported higher levels of performance and lower levels of interpersonal conflict.
It’s important to note that not all team members hold the same perceptions, though. The stakes are particularly high for senior leadership teams, where our research found members reported the greatest differences in their perceived levels of psychological safety — 62% of senior teams in our sample demonstrated significant variability around their team’s psychological safety. This has real business repercussions; when innovative ideas go unsaid, creative problem solving is squashed, and teams fail to collaborate and innovate together to their full potential.
The Importance of Psychological Safety at Work
A lack of consistent psychological safety at work is not just a “nice to have;” it impacts the organization’s bottom line. Having a higher level of psychological safety helps to unlock the contributions of all talent in the enterprise and ensures the organization is better equipped to prevent failure.
Research has repeatedly found that organizations benefit from diversity of thought, and groups of people with different life experiences are better able to recognize problems and offer up creative solutions than groups with similar life experiences.
But what if some team members don’t feel comfortable speaking up? What if they’re afraid to share their perspective, raise concerns, or asking challenging questions? What if they avoid suggesting new and innovative ideas because they’re worried about the repercussions?
Unfortunately, many people feel this way about their workplace. According to a 2019 Gallup poll, just 3 out of 10 employees strongly agreed that their opinions count at work.
It can be especially challenging for members of social identity groups that are often marginalized by society to feel high levels of psychological safety in the workplace. For example, a recent survey from Catalyst found that nearly half of female business leaders face difficulties speaking up in virtual meetings, and 1 in 5 reported feeling overlooked or ignored during video calls. Those who are members of historically underrepresented groups may feel this reality even more keenly.
Colleagues who feel their work environment is psychologically safe are more willing to engage in interpersonal risk-taking behaviors that contribute to greater organizational innovation — like speaking up, asking questions, sharing unspoken reservations, and respectfully disagreeing. This ultimately yields a more robust, dynamic, innovative, and inclusive organizational culture.
In contrast, when psychological safety at work is low and people are uncomfortable raising concerns, initiatives that aren’t working move forward anyway, the organization isn’t equipped to prevent failure, and talent begins to disengage. When employees aren’t fully committed to shared organizational success, ideas aren’t stress-tested, processes aren’t optimized, solutions aren’t vetted, and the enterprise has lost an opportunity to leverage the contributions of all its talent.
Why Psychological Safety in the Workplace Matters Now More Than Ever
The rise of the hybrid workplace and virtual work arrangements since the pandemic have made psychological safety at work more complex for leaders today. It can be harder to build a psychologically safe “workplace” when employees are not all co-located, and many are working remotely.
After all, how do you establish trust when interpersonal conversations have to be scheduled in advance, and many are conducted through a screen? Yet leading remote teams may give leaders a unique opportunity to forge connections and increase psychological safety — if they’re paying attention.
In an on-camera virtual meeting, you can look intently at people, perhaps more so than you could in person. (In many cultures, it can be awkward to stare at someone for 30 seconds or minutes at a time.) But on videoconferences, no one knows who you’re looking at, so you can watch the speaker closely — absorbing not just their words, but also their emotions and values. Leaders can seize this opportunity to explore authentic communication in virtual settings through the power of listening.
Plus, many people feel more comfortable typing vulnerable statements through a screen (for example, into a meeting chat) than they would speaking in person. In those settings, they may appreciate a chance to spend a little more time thinking through how they want to convey information to maximize impact. Leaders can show respect for those courageous enough to share their honest thoughts — again, recognizing the vulnerability required to do so, and responding with appreciation.