What is Psychological Safety at Work? How to Achieve it

What makes a team effective? A few years back, that was the question plaguing Google’s leadership. When they set out to find the answer, they conducted over 200 interviews, examined 250 different attributes, and studied over 180 Google teams. But they only came up with a few answers.

The first variable they identified was psychological safety.

According to the Harvard Business Review, psychological safety is paramount. Team members who feel psychologically safe are risk-takers. They’re open to new ideas. They operate on a level that isn’t held back by fear, trepidation, or worry of embarrassment. 

If it sounds like a magical elixir, it’s because some companies find psychological safety hard to define. As author Arthur C. Clarke once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The same could be said for psychological safety.

Let’s break down this concept to make it seem less elusive. What is psychological safety? Why is it important? And how can you bring it to how your workplace approaches its daily tasks?

What is psychological safety?

According to HBR, psychological safety is “the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake.” 

Have you ever heard a teacher say, “there are no dumb questions?” Then you’ve experienced someone trying to create a psychologically safe environment. With psychological safety, the emphasis isn’t on feeling literally protected. The emphasis is on not feeling embarrassed for spitballing new ideas.

Psychological safety also has a strong social component. One definition of team psychological safety is the “shared belief that people feel safe about the interpersonal risks that arise concerning their behaviors in a team context.”

In short, someone who feels psychologically safe can:

  • Perform better at work. The science shows a link between psychological safety at work and performance. This includes outcomes. Workers who felt more psychologically safe were more effective at meeting a company’s goals.
  • Cooperate better in teams. This was a proven result in Google’s findings. Simply put, people who feel safe in their team context have more incentive to cooperate and try new ideas.
  • Boost creativity, learning, and quality of work relationships. The mutual respect between colleagues that have psychological safety creates tangible improvements in work relationships. This has a noticeable effect on how much creativity and learning each team member is able to exercise in a work setting.

What are the four stages of psychological safety?

Psychological safety isn’t inherent — it’s something that’s intentionally cultivated and encouraged. Typically, that process is broken down into four distinct phases or stages

Stage #1: Inclusion safety

One of our more primordial fears is being excluded from other people. That’s why stage one grants us one of these basic needs: feeling like we’re part of the group. 

Stage one focuses on the potential for alienation that might result from new contexts. For example, an individual suffering from “imposter syndrome” might feel that entering any new group in a work context could “out” them as not being worthy of making contributions.

With “inclusion safety,” however, the individual learns that they are on equal footing with their team members. From a leader’s perspective, you’ll want to establish a sense of equality.

An example of this is a TV writer’s room, wherein the “best joke”—the one that gets the most laughs—is the one that goes in, regardless of rank. Writers frequently talk about this being the case at The Simpsons. 

“All we had to do was please ourselves,” John Swartzwelder, famed Simpsons writer, told the New Yorker

Inclusion safety is all about cultivating that same environment, company-wide. The work, not the social hierarchy, is the true priority. The feeling of inclusion also helps avoid employee overload and encourages each employee to feel a sense of investment.

Stage #2: Learner safety

Learning can be a surprisingly alienating endeavor. It requires letting go of past paradigms, humbling oneself, and trying something new. It involves going out on a ledge of uncertainty—along with its requisite risks of failure—before finding out what works.

For someone to feel psychologically safe at work, they also have to feel free to learn. And since failure is part of the learning process, psychological safety requires separating the perceived connection between failure and personal performance.

Learning is inherently a humble mindset. It requires asking questions that feel silly or making silly mistakes. According to LeaderFactor, “Conversely, a lack of learner safety triggers the self-censoring instinct, causing us to shut down, retrench, and manage personal risk.”

Stage #3: Contributor safety

What could be more deflating than joining a team meeting at work, only to feel you’ve contributed nothing?

Contributor safety is the feeling of active participation; that your role in the team wasn’t only necessary but helped the group achieve its goals. 

According to PredictiveIndex, one of the best ways to cultivate a sense of contributor safety is to highlight an employee’s past contributions. 

Team members also need to be a part of the decision-making process. If you asked a team for their thoughts but ultimately made your own decision, you shouldn’t be surprised if the team then feels a lack of contributor safety. It’s one thing to offer their opinion — but if their opinion changes the course of a project, it says more about your trust in them.

Stage #4: Challenger safety

So far, an employee should feel free to join, learn, and contribute to a team. But there’s a final stage to safety. You need the ability to challenge the existing paradigms without being thrown out of the group.

On the one hand, a manager doesn’t want a mutiny on their hands. But the Harvard Business Review points to the example of Peter Isenberg, an executive at an investment bank. He noticed that workers questioned his authority less if he listened to their challenges more.

“To establish his credibility,” writes HBR, “[Isenberg] adopted a hands-on approach, advising traders to close down particular positions or try different trading strategies. The traders pushed back, demanding to know the rationale for each directive. Things got uncomfortable.” 

HBR writes that Isenberg was eager to demonstrate his competence to establish authority. Oddly, it had the opposite effect: people didn’t feel challenger safety. 

But Isenberg eventually learned not to fight the instinct to challenge him. He soon saw how well things could work if he listened:

“Once I stopped talking all the time and began to listen, people on the desk started to educate me about the job and, significantly, seemed to question my calls far less.”

-Peter Isenberg, to the Harvard Business Review

What happened? If Isenberg was willing to listen to challenges, it demonstrated the competence he’d been so eager to display. And it made people feel that their expertise, contributions, and even challenges were valued.

Psychological safety was established and team harmony instantly improved.

Why does psychological safety matter?

According to one report, psychological safety had all sorts of positive effects, including:

  • Increased confidence
  • Boosts in creativity
  • More trust between team members
  • Improved engagement

Going back to the Google study, they also found that this sense of safety was integral to the success of their groups. It was the same no matter what that group’s task was.

Despite the obvious advantages of psychological safety in teams, only 47% of respondents reported they feel it at work.

That means something is amiss. But what’s happening—or not happening—to create this kind of disconnect?

How does psychological safety affect performance?

In the report quoted above, researchers noticed a 12% boost in productivity when employees felt psychologically safe at work. But how does that work practically? How do intangible feelings of safety translate into better work?

Let’s go directly to the source. A 2018 report on Humble Leadership and Psychological Safety found that this safety was essential for encouraging everyone to be at their most creative:

“A work environment that is safe to take interpersonal risks and express new ideas is critical for follower creativity because the environment can motivate and increase one’s willingness to show creativity…

-Frontiers in Psychology

Someone who feels safe taking risks feels safe making contributions. That can apply to any type of project — creative or otherwise. A screenwriter throws out a funny line of dialogue. A mid-level manager floats an idea for a new ad campaign. An IT expert suggests changing a company’s digital infrastructure. 

Some of these will be bad ideas. But without a level of psychological security in place, the good ideas will go out with the bad ones.

However, the benefits of psychological safety go beyond that. Feeling safe to contribute also inspires employee engagement, participation, and team trust.

How to create psychological safety at work

It’s easy to see how feelings like comfort and security can make the work environment a better place. But it’s also important to ask how to do it. Here are some ways you can create psychological safety at work:

1. Ensure leadership is humble

No one feels safe around a tyrant. The 2018 report on Humble Leadership and Psychological Safety found a direct connection between a humble leader and psychological safety. 

Peter Isenberg showed this principle in action: by listening to the input of his employees, Isenberg didn’t prove himself unknowledgeable. Instead, he proved his competence as a leader. This built trust and the result was a better work environment for all parties.

2. Share knowledge

Simply put: unless you’re working on the Manhattan Project, don’t keep secrets. The same report above identified “knowledge sharing as one potentially important moderating factor” for creating a sense of safety. 

By encouraging knowledge sharing, you’re helping people feel like they belong. The more they know about the project and its objectives, the better they’ll feel about making contributions.

3. Reward initiative

A simple word or two of praise for taking the initiative can be enough. The most important thing is that someone should feel validated for having shown initiative. 

It can be dicey to test out a new idea or ask a new question. It inspires feelings of fear — what if people laugh at it? Learn to reward the act of initiative alone, regardless of the outcome.

4. Encourage the idea of “no bad ideas”

Sure, some ideas will work better than others. Some might not work at all. But in a teamwork environment, the only bad idea is the one never voiced. The freedom to fail — to say the wrong thing — is just as important for psychological safety at work as the feeling of success.

How to create psychological safety in a remote or hybrid environment

Many of the same principles hold up for a remote/hybrid work environment. But when a worker is remote, their psychological safety needs can increase even if you’re doing an otherwise stellar job of team management. A good remote manager will make psychological safety a bigger priority to ensure everyone feels like they belong.

1. Make time for interpersonal connections 

Teams’ psychological safety doesn’t just happen in a vacuum. And it’s easy to take one-on-one conversations and eye contact for granted when you’re in an office. When someone is working from home, it’s harder to get a gauge on them. Do they feel like they belong? Do they feel psychologically safe? 

You can’t find out unless you make time for these interpersonal connections. Make a solid commitment to this. Open a Slack Channel that’s only for the “personal stuff.” Set a calendar reminder to ask how someone is doing. With remote work, small gestures can go a long way.

2. Don’t check in too often

Resist the urge to constantly look over the remote worker’s shoulder. Trust, after all, is a two-way street. 

“Humble leadership” occurs when you give someone free rein to complete a task. Feel free to set big goals with realistic milestones along the way — otherwise, let your workers know that you trust them to deliver.

3. Empower them with information

One of the best ways to ensure your remote team feels equipped to do their jobs is to confirm that they have all of the information, tools, and resources they need to succeed.

That can feel increasingly challenging in a remote environment as updates and comments can get missed or lost in the shuffle. Centralizing your team’s communication and project management in a platform like Wrike will boost transparency and ensure that everybody can get their hands on what they need. 

Reduce fear and improve performance

Psychological safety in teams isn’t an exact science. But it’s not something that’s totally out of your control, either. If you want your team to be both happy and high-performing (of course you do), then fostering psychological safety at work needs to be at the top of your priority list. 

Sign up for a free trial of Wrike to see how it can help you boost safety and comfort with every new project.

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