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Achieving Harmony: Establishing Psychological Safety at Work

By Julian Lewis July 3, 2023


Key Takeaways

  • Psychological safety is crucial for enhancing team dynamics, creativity, and effectiveness.
  • Interpersonal risk-taking is encouraged in psychologically safe environments.
  • Barriers like fear and imposter syndrome can hinder psychological safety at work.
  • Leaders play a pivotal role in establishing and fostering psychological safety.
  • The future of work requires an increased emphasis on creating a psychologically safe workplace.
Achieving Harmony: Establishing Psychological Safety at Work

In the realm of the modern workplace, one term has been gaining traction among industry leaders, human resources professionals, and team members alike: psychological safety. But what is this term, and why does it matter so much?

Psychological safety at work is a shared belief held by members of a team that it's safe for interpersonal risk-taking. It's about fostering a work climate where people feel comfortable voicing their thoughts without fear of ridicule or negative consequences. In essence, a psychologically safe work environment allows us to be our full selves, openly sharing our thoughts and ideas, and making valuable contributions without fear.

However, creating a psychologically safe work environment goes far beyond merely saying "speak up". It's about building a culture that encourages taking risks, empowers employees, and promotes an open dialogue. This is no easy task. As we navigate the world of psychological safety, we'll discover its importance, the barriers that can prevent it, and the profound impact it can have on team effectiveness, employee retention, and overall well-being.

Understanding and implementing psychological safety in the workplace has never been more critical. With the rise of remote work and diverse teams spanning different time zones and cultures, the need to ensure every team member feels psychologically safe has become a fundamental requirement for high-performing teams.

From the Harvard Business School professor who coined the term psychological safety to the countless studies underlining its benefits, psychological safety has been proven time and again to be a key ingredient for successful teams. In this post, we will explore the concept of psychological safety, its importance, and how we can foster and measure it in our workplaces.

Stay with us as we unravel the complexities of psychological safety at work, examine the research behind it, and provide actionable steps to create a psychologically safe work environment. Whether you're a team leader, an HR professional, or a team member looking to improve your work environment, this guide will offer invaluable insights.

Let's begin our journey into understanding psychological safety in the workplace, creating a space where every team member feels safe, empowered, and capable of their best work. Explore more about psychological safety at work.

Note: For further in-depth reading, we recommend books such as The Fearless Organization by Amy Edmondson.

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The Origins and Importance of Psychological Safety

The concept of psychological safety was first coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson in the late 1990s. Her studies within various teams in the healthcare sector revealed that teams with high psychological safety reported more mistakes - not because they made more mistakes, but because they felt safe admitting to them, leading to fewer mistakes over time.

You can also gain insights into the impact of psychological safety on personal growth by delving into Erikson's stages.

Psychological safety is not only about making fewer mistakes but also about fostering a work environment that encourages risk-taking, problem-solving, and innovation. As per Edmondson's definition, psychological safety is a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. It's a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up.

In an environment with high psychological safety, team members feel comfortable expressing themselves, contributing new ideas, and admitting their own fallibility. They trust that they will not face negative consequences for making mistakes. Such a work climate can enhance team performance, improve decision-making processes, and boost employee retention and overall well-being.

In today's diverse and dynamic work environments, psychological safety has become even more essential. It is the cornerstone of effective team functioning in complex, fast-paced workplaces where innovation and agility are key. Without psychological safety, teams may stagnate, become mired in the status quo, and fail to harness the collective intelligence and unique perspectives of their members.

Inclusion safety, an aspect of psychological safety, highlights the importance of creating an environment where everyone feels included and valued, irrespective of their background or perspectives. This element is crucial in diverse teams, where varying viewpoints can be a significant source of innovation if managed effectively.

The impact of psychological safety extends beyond the workplace. It plays a critical role in our overall well-being, as feeling safe and included is a basic human need.

For a more in-depth look at the origins and importance of psychological safety, Amy Edmondson's book "The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth" provides valuable insights. This pivotal read outlines the crucial role of psychological safety in fostering successful, innovative teams and organizations.

The Impact of Psychological Safety on Teams

The Impact of Psychological Safety on Teams

Psychological safety holds a profound influence over team dynamics, creativity, and effectiveness. In the realm of a team, psychological safety shapes the interactions between team members, their willingness to take risks, and their ability to openly discuss issues and concerns.

When a team possesses high psychological safety, team members feel empowered to express their creative ideas, voice their thoughts, and make valuable contributions. They feel comfortable taking risks and are less afraid of making mistakes, knowing they won't face negative consequences. The shared belief that the team is a safe space for interpersonal risk-taking enhances the team's ability to innovate, problem solve, and adapt to changes.

High psychological safety leads to high-performing teams. When individuals feel psychologically safe, they become more engaged, more collaborative, and more committed to the team's success. This promotes better decision making, improves problem-solving capabilities, and fosters a team culture where everyone feels valued and included. This leads to greater team effectiveness and productivity.

Moreover, psychological safety can be a powerful tool in remote work situations. With teams spread across different time zones, a psychologically safe work environment helps bridge the gap, ensuring every team member, regardless of their location, feels part of the collective effort.

Furthermore, fostering psychological safety aligns with the principles of democratic leadership, a style of leadership where every team member's opinion is valued and considered. A previous blog post on Zella Life discusses how democratic leadership fosters a sense of belonging, participation, and commitment among team members— all of which are strongly linked to a psychologically safe work environment.

In sum, psychological safety can transform team dynamics, propelling a team towards success and creating a culture of innovation, mutual respect, and trust. With psychological safety, team members are more likely to go beyond their comfort zones, actively engage in tasks, and contribute to the team's overall success.

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Interpersonal Risk-Taking and Psychological Safety

Interpersonal Risk-Taking and Psychological Safety

One of the vital elements of psychological safety is how it fosters interpersonal risk-taking within teams. But what does interpersonal risk-taking mean, and how does it tie into the idea of psychological safety at work?

Interpersonal risk-taking refers to the willingness of team members to take on actions that could potentially expose them to negative consequences such as criticism, rejection, or punishment. These risks could involve voicing a dissenting opinion, admitting to a mistake, asking for help, or proposing a creative yet unconventional idea.

In a psychologically safe work environment, employees feel safe to take these risks. They understand that their actions will not lead to punitive responses, even if they result in mistakes. Rather than fear of retaliation, there is an emphasis on learning and growing from these situations.

For example, a team member might admit to a mistake they made on a project. In a high psychological safety environment, the team will see this as an opportunity for collective learning, helping to prevent similar issues in the future, rather than blaming the individual. Similarly, employees in psychologically safe workplaces feel comfortable proposing creative, outside-the-box ideas, knowing that these will be received positively and treated with respect, even if they are not ultimately adopted.

Daniel Coyle's book, "The Culture Code" further elucidates this idea, providing insights into successful teams' secret codes. It showcases how creating a culture that embraces interpersonal risks allows teams to bond, innovate, and function more effectively.

In essence, psychological safety enables interpersonal risk-taking, which in turn fosters trust, mutual respect, and a culture of open communication and learning. These are key ingredients in creating successful, high-performing teams.

Identifying the Barriers to Psychological Safety in the Workplace

Identifying the Barriers to Psychological Safety in the Workplace

Despite the clear benefits, not all workplaces have managed to establish high psychological safety. Various barriers can stand in the way, obstructing the creation of a psychologically safe work environment.

One such barrier is the traditional mindset that views mistakes as failures rather than learning opportunities. This mindset can stifle interpersonal risk taking, as team members may fear potential negative consequences if they err, voice dissenting opinions, or experiment with innovative ideas. This fear, in turn, may hinder effective problem solving and creativity, thereby affecting team performance and effectiveness.

Another challenge is a lack of open and transparent communication. When team members feel they can't express their thoughts or concerns without fear of retribution, it hampers their ability to fully contribute to the team. This can lead to fewer valuable contributions and hinder the decision-making process.

The hierarchical structure prevalent in many organizations can also hinder psychological safety at work. When there is too much emphasis on status and authority, it can create power dynamics that discourage lower-level employees from voicing their ideas or concerns, inhibiting the shared belief that it is safe to take risks.

Moreover, on a more personal level, factors like Imposter Syndrome can also act as barriers to psychological safety. Imposter Syndrome refers to the internal experience of believing that you're not as competent as others perceive you to be, leading to self-doubt and fears of being exposed as a "fraud." This can prevent individuals from fully participating in team discussions or voicing their ideas, hindering the creation of a psychologically safe work climate.

We delve deeper into the topic of Imposter Syndrome in our Zella Life blog post, where we explore how it can impact individuals and teams in the workplace, and offer strategies to overcome it.

Understanding these barriers is the first step towards creating a psychologically safe work environment. It's only by identifying and addressing these issues that organizations can foster psychological safety, leading to enhanced team effectiveness, employee retention, and overall well-being.

Strategies to Foster Psychological Safety at Work

Strategies to Foster Psychological Safety at Work

Creating psychological safety at work requires intentional efforts from both leaders and team members. Here are some strategies to foster psychological safety in your team or organization:

  1. Promote Open Communication: Encourage team members to speak up, express their thoughts, and contribute their ideas without fear of negative consequences. Open dialogue allows for more creative problem solving and contributes to a psychologically safe work environment.
    Part of promoting open communication is also holding effective meetings, where all participants can express their ideas and concerns. Learn how to conduct such meetings in our guide: Is That Truly An Important Meeting? A Quick Guide to Effective Meetings.
  2. Embrace Mistakes as Learning Opportunities: Foster an environment where making mistakes is not seen as failure, but as an opportunity for growth and improvement. This helps to lower the perceived risks associated with experimentation and innovation.
  3. Lead with Empathy: Show understanding and compassion when team members encounter challenges or make mistakes. This helps to create an environment where people feel comfortable being themselves and taking interpersonal risks.
  4. Practice Active Listening: Be fully present and show genuine interest when team members are speaking. This helps them feel heard and valued, contributing to a psychologically safe climate.
  5. Model Curiosity and Encourage Questions: Leaders should model curiosity and encourage their teams to ask questions. This helps to break down the status quo and encourages continuous learning and improvement.
  6. Foster Mutual Respect and Trust: Building interpersonal trust and mutual respect is key to fostering psychological safety. This involves treating all team members fairly and valuing their contributions.

In the Psychological Safety Playbook, Timothy Clark provides a comprehensive guide on how to build a psychologically safe work climate, with actionable steps and insights. In addition, Kim Scott's book Radical Candor offers valuable insights on how leaders can communicate more effectively and foster psychologically safe work environments.

For additional strategies, check out our Coaching Vs. Mentoring blog post on Zella Life, where we explore the differences between coaching and mentoring, and how they can contribute to creating psychologically safe workplaces.

Learn the key distinctions between these two professional development roles, and find out which one is best for your needs. Discover the benefits of working with a coach, such as goal-setting, accountability, and skill development. Learn how a mentor can provide guidance, advice, and industry-specific knowledge.

Creating a Psychologically Safe Workplace: A Step-By-Step Guide

Creating a Psychologically Safe Workplace: A Step-By-Step Guide

Creating a psychologically safe workplace can seem like a daunting task, but with a clear plan and committed action, it is entirely achievable. Here is a step-by-step guide to help you on your journey:

Step 1: Understand Psychological Safety Before you can foster psychological safety, it is essential to understand what it means and why it matters. Begin by educating yourself and your team about the concept, its origins, and its benefits.

Step 2: Assess the Current Level of Psychological Safety Use surveys, one-on-one meetings, or group discussions to gauge the existing level of psychological safety within your team. This assessment will help you understand where you stand and identify areas for improvement.

Step 3: Foster Open Communication Encourage team members to express their thoughts, ideas, and concerns openly. An environment where people speak freely contributes to a psychologically safe workplace.

Step 4: Establish a Culture of Learning from Mistakes Reframe mistakes as opportunities for learning. This approach reduces the fear associated with risk-taking and promotes a culture of innovation and continuous improvement.

Step 5: Promote Active Listening and Empathy Practice active listening and demonstrate empathy when interacting with team members. When employees feel heard and understood, they are more likely to take interpersonal risks and contribute more effectively to the team.

Step 6: Regularly Reinforce the Importance of Psychological Safety Consistently remind team members about the importance of psychological safety, the progress made, and the work yet to be done. Reinforcing the value of psychological safety can help it become ingrained in your team's culture.

Step 7: Continue to Learn and Adjust Building a psychologically safe work environment is a continuous process. Regularly revisit your strategies, seek feedback, and make necessary adjustments to ensure that psychological safety remains a priority in your workplace.

Our Unlocking Employee Resilience blog post provides further insights on fostering resilience within the context of a psychologically safe environment. By combining these strategies, you can create a workplace where employees feel safe, respected, and empowered to do their best work.

If you want to learn more about the benefits of diversity and inclusion initiatives in the workplace, check out this informative blog post on Zella Life's website.

The Role of Leadership in Establishing Psychological Safety at the Workplace

The Role of Leadership in Establishing Psychological Safety at the Workplace

Leadership plays a pivotal role in fostering an environment of psychological safety at the workplace. As Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson points out, leaders set the tone for the entire organization. Here are some ways leaders can promote psychological safety:

1. Lead by Example Leaders should model the behaviors they wish to see in their teams. This includes demonstrating vulnerability, admitting their own fallibility, and treating mistakes as learning opportunities. In a psychologically safe work environment, leaders don't have "all the answers" but are open to new ideas and perspectives.

2. Encourage Open Communication Leaders can promote psychological safety by encouraging open dialogue, creating platforms for all team members to share their thoughts and ideas, and demonstrating that all voices are valuable. This fosters an environment where employees feel comfortable taking risks and speaking up.

3. Show Empathy and Understanding An effective leader understands the importance of empathy in building trust and rapport with team members. By being attentive to team members' feelings and experiences, leaders can make their team feel psychologically safe.

4. Foster Inclusion Leaders can foster psychological safety by promoting an inclusive culture where everyone feels a sense of belonging. Inclusion safety, a component of psychological safety, ensures that team members feel safe to be themselves without fear of negative consequences.

5. Provide Constructive Feedback A leader can help create a psychologically safe environment by providing feedback that is constructive, specific, and balanced. This helps team members learn and grow without feeling threatened or discouraged.

Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek offers valuable insights on how leaders can foster trust and cooperation in their teams, which are fundamental elements of a psychologically safe workplace. Incorporating these insights into your leadership approach can be incredibly beneficial.

For practical examples of effective leadership, take a look at our Effective Sales Management blog post. It sheds light on how good leadership can create a psychologically safe environment, driving team performance and ensuring a high degree of employee retention.

Managers play a crucial role in shaping organizational culture. For more on this, explore our blog post on how to identify and correct negative workplace culture.

Case Studies: Success Stories of Psychological Safety at Work

Let's delve into real-world examples of organizations that have successfully established high psychological safety at work and witnessed the positive impact it brings.

1. Google's Project Aristotle

In 2012, Google embarked on an initiative known as Project Aristotle to understand the factors that lead to the success of a team. After assessing various elements such as the skills of team members, the clarity of goals, and the nature of the tasks, they found that the highest-performing teams were those that had a high degree of psychological safety.

Team members in these groups felt safe to take risks, make mistakes, and voice their opinions without fear of negative consequences. This fostered an environment of mutual respect and interpersonal trust, encouraging innovation and problem solving.

2. The Pixar Animation Studios

Pixar is renowned for its culture of creativity and innovation. A key component of their success is their commitment to fostering a psychologically safe work environment. This is embodied in their "Braintrust" meetings where all team members, regardless of their rank or role, are encouraged to provide feedback and suggestions. This has fostered an environment where people feel safe to share creative ideas, resulting in numerous successful films.

3. Bridgewater Associates

Bridgewater Associates, one of the world's largest hedge funds, takes psychological safety to a new level with their principle of "radical transparency." This approach encourages all employees, regardless of their rank, to speak openly about their concerns, ideas, or criticisms. Bridgewater believes that this level of honesty and openness creates a psychologically safe work environment that encourages constant learning and improvement.

Each of these companies demonstrates that a commitment to psychological safety at work can lead to higher team effectiveness, increased employee retention, and overall success. To learn more about these concepts, check out Amy Edmondson's book, The Fearless Organization, which offers more insights into the importance of psychological safety in the workplace.

Conclusion: The Future of Psychological Safety in the Workplace

As we look ahead, the importance of psychological safety in the workplace is set to increase even further. This evolution is fueled by changing dynamics in the world of work, which is becoming more diverse, more remote, and more reliant on effective teamwork.

The role of individual employees in this evolution cannot be understated. Each team member, irrespective of their position, has the capacity to influence the psychological safety of their team through their interactions, communication, and attitudes. Active participation in discussions, showing empathy, and demonstrating understanding towards colleagues are just some of the ways individuals can contribute to a psychologically safe environment.

Leaders, on the other hand, have a substantial role in setting the tone for a psychologically safe environment. This involves creating spaces for open dialogue, fostering an inclusive culture, and demonstrating vulnerability. As these practices become more commonplace, we can expect a shift towards more resilient, innovative, and high-performing teams.

Finally, it is crucial for everyone to remember that creating and maintaining psychological safety is an ongoing process. It requires continuous learning, adaptation, and growth. Therefore, we encourage you to keep exploring, asking questions, and seeking new ways to create a more psychologically safe workplace.

For additional reading on psychological safety, we recommend checking out Amy Edmondson's The Fearless Organization and our Zella Life blog for practical strategies, insights, and tips. Remember, the journey to creating a psychologically safe workplace is a marathon, not a sprint. Keep striving and innovating to build a better future for you and your team.

Read more about: Employee Experience

About Julian Lewis

Julian Lewis is a driven and accomplished professional with a passion for driving positive change in the business world. He is the co-founder and COO at Zella Life.

His own experience as a professional of color in a Fortune 500 company led him to discover the limitations for advancement that many professionals like himself face. Determined to reach his full potential, Julian became an established business coach and entrepreneur, committed to supporting others in their pursuit of personal and professional growth.

Today, Julian is a recognized corporate trainer, coach, and leader, known for his ability to leverage real-life experiences and evidence-based methodologies to affect positive change within individuals and organizations. As the leader of Zella Life's coaching division, he is dedicated to empowering individuals and businesses to achieve their full potential.

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