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How can we cultivate psychological safety at work?
The Basics
The Basics

How can we cultivate psychological safety at work?

The Basics is a series exploring the concepts and individuals essential to purposeful business.

For many of us, the only constant over the past two years has been inconsistency: ‘Stay at home’; ‘Go back to the office’; ‘Work from home when you can.’ As we adjust to a new era of hybrid working, it’s natural that many of us might feel anxious. How will things change when we are back in the office? 

Perhaps we feel out of sync with our colleagues, or maybe we’ve not even met them face-to-face. So what can employers do to make us feel reassured, and enable us to bring our best selves to work? 

According to behavioural scientists, for teams to reach their true potential at work, the key is cultivating psychological safety.

How did the term come about?

Back in the 90s, psychologist Amy Edmondson stumbled across something curious. She was conducting studies into the performance of numerous work teams and found that, contrary to what might logically be assumed, the teams that made more mistakes did better, and the teams that made less did worse. How was this the case?

But then she considered: maybe the better teams weren’t making more mistakes; maybe they were simply admitting to them, while the poorer teams would cover them up. 

She coined the term psychological safety to describe “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.” 

“For over a century, we’ve focused too much on relentless execution and depended too much on fear to get things done,” she wrote in Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy. “That era is over.”

“For over a century, we’ve focused too much on relentless execution and depended too much on fear to get things done. That era is over.”

What are the benefits?

Research suggests that psychologically safe teams are more innovative. In 2012, Google launched ‘Project Aristotle’, an investigation into what makes a perfect team. Studying 180 teams over two years, they found that the most common feature across  high-performing teams was feeling secure.

“The very nature of innovation requires employees to suggest half-formed ideas, take risks or propose solutions that may not have data to inform them. And that can happen only in an environment in which employees feel secure and safe,” says inclusion strategist Ruchika Tulshyan.

This can partly be explained by neurobiology. When we feel threatened – whether by a competitive coworker or an irritable boss – the amygdala is activated, inciting the fight-or-flight response. Rather than focusing on what we can achieve together, fear disrupts collaboration. “We are forced to expend our own time and energy to protect ourselves from each other, and that inherently weakens the organisation,” expounds Simon Sinek.

“This ‘act first, think later’ brain structure shuts down perspective and analytical reasoning,” writes Laura Delizonna in Harvard Business Review. “While that fight-or-flight reaction may save us in life-or-death situations, it handicaps the strategic thinking needed in today’s workplace.”

On the other hand, when our environments are challenging but not threatening, oxytocin levels in our brains rise, making us feel more trusting of one another.  “When we feel safe in our environments, we become more open-minded, resilient, motivated,” Delizonna adds. “Humour increases, as does solution-finding and divergent thinking – the cognitive process underlying creativity”. 

How can you cultivate psychological safety? 

  • Prioritise inclusion: It’s harder for some people to speak up than others. A survey conducted in 2020 found that nearly half of women faced difficulty speaking up in virtual meetings. “Managers can foster safety by asking themselves the hard questions: Am I hearing some ideas more than others? Have I made sure everyone got a chance to speak?” Ruchika Tulshyan suggests.
  • Take responsibility for mistakes: When leaders take open responsibility for their mistakes, they create a culture where employees can confidently take ownership of their errors. This can improve communication and enable a healthy dose of risk-taking. 
  • Adopt a learning mindset: Rather than looking for culprits when things have gone wrong, approach the situation with a mindset that embraces new perspectives and learning. “The alternative to blame is curiosity,” says Delizonna. “If you believe you already know what the other person is thinking, then you’re not ready to have a conversation.” 

Further reading:

“Managers can foster safety by asking themselves the hard questions: Am I hearing some ideas more than others? Have I made sure everyone got a chance to speak?”