How comfortable do you feel bringing up a controversial suggestion at work? How about openly voicing disagreement with a higher-up if you feel like they are wrong about something? Or providing critical feedback to members of your team?
Let’s face it, if we do not feel safe sharing our thoughts and ideas at work, it can be pretty tough or perhaps impossible to unlock our max potential. We have an opportunity to lay a foundation of trust and respect in the early stages of professional and organizational relationships to build many stories of success.
A person’s willingness to take these kinds of interpersonal risks in the workplace is referred to as their level of psychological safety. Psychological safety has become a household term at many organizations in recent years—that is, the term gets thrown around a lot—but just how to nurture an environment of psychological safety is less ubiquitously-known by organizational leaders.
Psychological safety was first introduced by psychologists in the 1960s, but it didn’t make a huge hit until interest in it renewed in the late 1990s. The charge for organizations to refocus on psychological safety was led by Amy Edmonson, a highly-distinguished professor at Harvard Business School, who has spent over two decades devoted to researching the impact of psychological safety in teams and organizations. Edmondson and other organizational psychologists have found that employees’ feelings of psychological safety are fundamental to many important people-driven processes in organizations. Psychological safety is predictive of greater learning on the job, more creativity and innovation, higher-quality decision-making, higher engagement levels, and better team performance. In other words, organizations with employees who feel psychologically safe perform better because their people openly voice perspectives and engage directly and candidly with their peers.
So what should leaders of organizations do to increase the psychological safety of their employees? First—it is important to note a few things about psychological safety. One, a person’s feelings of psychological safety differ from context to context. You can think of it this way: consider how psychologically safe you would feel in front of a higher-up you don’t know very well versus a group of your work friends at lunch. How psychologically safe people feel is largely determined by the specific context—and the particular people—with whom they are working at any given time. To make sure people are feeling psychologically safe on a consistent basis, organizational leaders must consider how different contexts and people affect the psychological safety of others situation to situation. For example, a meeting involving close colleagues will likely feel a lot different in terms of psychological safety than one with a broader group with several vice presidents present.
Second, not everyone in a group affects psychological safety in the same way (it is not one size fits all, especially with this topic). The behaviors of leaders likely disproportionately affect psychological safety levels compared to peer-level employees. Another way that leaders affect the psychological safety of teams is through their level of inclusiveness. Leader inclusiveness, in this context, means actively inviting and expressing appreciation for the contributions of members of the team. For example, in my own as well as others’ research on intensive care unit (ICU) teams in hospitals, where the importance of psychological safety in team members is paramount, the team leader’s level of inclusiveness was strongly associated with how psychologically safe members of the team felt. Leaders are likely able to increase the psychological safety of their teams simply by openly expressing what they already may be feeling internally—that the unique contributions of their team members are important and valued.
While leaders impact psychological safety a lot, everyone in an organization has influence over feelings of psychological safety. Organizations that want to see psychological safety grow should focus squarely on increasing the trust, and trust is built through positive interpersonal connections. For example, research has shown that simply being more familiar with others (through more frequent interaction, for example) is associated with greater trust. Feelings of loneliness, which can result from feeling unconnected to others, is a major risk factor for feeling less trusting of others in general.
There are a few other things to consider when working to develop the connections between employees.
- Quality connections require work and maintenance. This means going beyond small talk and basic updates to conversations about growth, goals, barriers, and opportunities for improvement.
- Quality connections that foster trust rely on effort and accountability. Being accountable, in a general sense, means keeping promises, but that is much easier said than done. Being accountable to someone else in a professional relationship necessitates a high level of intentionality and organization—it means keeping track of promises, setting concrete goals and deadlines for actions, and having course-correction conversations when things fall off track.
- Quality connections require time. This means prioritizing connections highly. If you want a well-connected, trusting, psychologically-safe workplace, connections cannot be relegated to the “if we have time” thing or the “meeting we can cancel or put off” thing. Organizations that want a more connected workplace need to make it a priority and follow through by providing the resources and time to make and maintain connections
So in sum, here’s the TL, DR: Psychological safety describes how comfortable employees feel initiating difficult interactions in the workplace, including voicing contradictory opinions, disagreeing with higher-ups, and providing critical feedback. Psychological safety is important to organizations because it is linked to important ROI factors including learning on the job, innovation, decision quality, engagement, and team performance. To foster psychological safety, organizations need:
(1) Inclusive leaders—that is, leaders who welcome and express appreciation for employees’ unique contributions.
(2) Trust, which is built through intentional, meaningful, high-quality connections.
(3) None of this can happen without leadership buy in from the top and the organziation prioritizing people – truly empowering them to take the time to build these connections.
Like any investment, building psychological safety in an organization takes time, resources, and effort, but the payoff in terms of employee engagement, creativity, and performance are well worth it.
- Alarcon, G. M., Lyons, J. B., & Christensen, J. C. (2016). The effect of propensity to trust and familiarity on perceptions of trustworthiness over time. Personality and Individual Differences, 94, 309–315. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2016.01.031
- Diabes, M. A., Ervin, J. N., Davis, B. S., Rak, K. J., Cohen, T. R., Weingart, L. R., & Kahn, J. M. (2021). Psychological Safety in Intensive Care Unit Rounding Teams. Annals of the American Thoracic Society, 18(6), 1027–1033. https://doi.org/10.1513/AnnalsATS.202006-753OC
- Edmondson, A. C., & Lei, Z. (2014). Psychological Safety: The History, Renaissance, and Future of an Interpersonal Construct. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 1(1), 23–43. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-031413-091305
- Nembhard, I. M., & Edmondson, A. C. (2006). Making it safe: The effects of leader inclusiveness and professional status on psychological safety and improvement efforts in health care teams. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 27(7), 941–966. https://doi.org/10.1002/job.413Rotenberg, K. J. (1994). Loneliness and Interpersonal Trust. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 13(2), 152–173. https://doi.org/10.1521/jscp.19126.96.36.199
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