Psychological safety in the workplace: What it is and why it matters to your organization
When employees feel safe to challenge the status quo, they bring new, innovative ideas to the table. But without psychological safety at work, your employees won’t speak up – and your organization will suffer the consequences.
Do your employees feel safe to voice an unconventional or even an unpopular, opinion in the workplace? Can they share their ideas freely in a brainstorming session? Or, do they fear going against the grain – or worse, being ridiculed by their colleagues or peers?
The level at which your employees feel safe to contribute matters – not only for their sense of belonging and engagement but also for your organization’s culture of inclusion.
Diversity of thought – and challenging the status quo – brings about new, innovative ideas. But without an environment where employees feel safe and welcome to speak up, your business will suffer.
This notion of feeling able to speak freely – and with conviction – is known as psychological safety. And it not only helps employees feel like their voices matter but also drives organizations forward.
As such, we’ve taken a closer look at what psychological safety looks like in the workplace (with examples), why supporting psychological safety in the workplace matters, and our advice for getting started creating a culture of psychological safety where you work, below.
What is psychological safety?
Psychological safety is the belief people have where they can voice their thoughts and opinions freely, without fear of repercussions or embarrassment. An environment where managers encourage team members to be their best.
At work, employees feel psychologically safe when they can not only share their ideas (such as in a brainstorming session) or challenge the status quo, but also when they know that their peers, colleagues, and leaders will not reject or punish them for doing so.
Psychological safety at work occurs when employees feel a sense of belonging; when they’re able to bring their whole, authentic selves to the workplace and feel free to share their unique thoughts, feelings, ideas, questions, and mistakes without worrying they’ll be judged or made to feel inferior because of their contributions.
What are the stages of psychological safety at work?
Getting to a place of feeling psychologically safe at work takes time. Dr. Timothy Clark, Founder, and CEO of LeaderFactor and five-time author, details the four stages employees progress through in his book, The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation,
According to him, the four stages of psychological safety at work are:
Stage 1: Inclusion safety
Inclusion safety satisfies the basic human need to connect and belong. In this stage, you feel safe to be yourself and are accepted for who you are, including your unique attributes and defining characteristics.
Stage 2: Learner safety
Learner safety satisfies the need to learn and grow. In this stage, you feel safe to exchange in the learning process, by asking questions, giving and receiving feedback, experimenting, and making mistakes.
Stage 3: Contributor safety
Contributor safety satisfies the need to make a difference. You feel safe to use your skills and abilities to make a meaningful contribution.
Stage 4: Challenger safety
Challenger safety satisfies the need to make things better. You feel safe to speak up and challenge the status quo when you think there’s an opportunity to change or improve.
Only when employees progress through these stages will they feel safe to make valuable contributions and challenge the status quo.
Examples of psychological safety in the workplace
Now that you know what it takes for employees to feel safe speaking up and making valuable contributions at work, it’s critical to get started fostering a culture that promotes psychological safety.
Here are some examples of what psychological safety in the workplace can look like:
- Employees feeling that it's okay to fail and learn, as well as feeling safe to ask for help. This is supported by a learn-it-all, not know-it-all culture.
- A company culture that employs data, not necessarily seniority, to enable decision-making.
- Employees openly giving and receiving feedback.
- A company culture that fosters a sense of belonging, where employees can bring their full selves to work.
- Employees feeling safe to speak up when they’re at, or approaching, capacity; to take time off and fully log off when not working.
- Employees challenging the status quo when they see opportunities to change or improve the way things are done.
What are the business risks for a culture where people don't have psychological safety?
You’ve likely heard of The Great Resignation, the employee exodus taking place – right now – that’s attributed to people being exhausted and burned out, as well as awakened to new life priorities in a post-lockdown world.
According to our recent 2022 Employee Experience Trends report, the length of time people intend to stay at their company has shortened year over year, especially among senior leadership:
- Executives’ intent to stay dropped 12 points
- Managers dropped 11 points
- Individual contributors dropped 7 points
Is a lack of psychological safety at work also a cause of this exodus? Signs point to yes
Here’s why: Employees are tired of feeling like their voices aren’t being heard. They’re no longer going to work for an organization that makes them feel unsafe to speak up about their mental health, their need to rest, and/or their (in)ability to fully shut off from work – and workplace technology.
Leaders especially are burned out from a workplace culture that doesn't support, sustain, or restore their well-being. And, as a result, are leaving in droves.
In addition to employee attrition, there are some of the other risks associated with a workplace that doesn’t promote psychological safety:
- Lower employee engagement
- Best ideas not winning out
- Not taking big risks and/or failing fast
Without diversity of thought, and the psychological safety to speak up, employees feel like their voices don’t matter. And in the current job market, employees can and will leave to find a place of employment where they feel safe and heard.
Steps to create a culture of psychological safety in the workplace
Ready to get started creating a culture of psychological safety for your employees? Here are four steps to help you develop high-performing teams and build psychological safety at work.
1. Talk about the importance of psychological safety at work.
Encourage people leaders to talk to their employees about what it takes to foster a culture of psychological safety of team members.
Ask employees what they think a psychologically safe workplace is. Arrive at agreed-to-best practices. Lead by example when it comes to making everyone feel safe to speak up and contribute.
2. Be transparent about failures and wins.
Normalize talking about what works and what doesn’t at your organization.
Make employees feel safe sharing their wins and their failures, so that everyone can learn from those experiences. Show the value in failing and talk about what to do differently next time in an empowering and productive way.
3. Encourage open dialogue and new ideas.
Your employees have new and innovative ideas as to how to make things better – whether it’s a simple process improvement or a new product or solution.
Give employees the opportunity to share their ideas openly; provide a forum to do so, as well as the encouragement and knowledge that their contributions are welcome, no matter how different they are.
4. Ask employees for feedback about psychological safety at work – and take action on that feedback.
To better understand if your employees feel included and safe – especially to learn, contribute, and challenge the status quo – simply ask them. Employee listening tools help you quickly and nimbly get a pulse on how your employees feel at work.
Then, once you’ve gathered insights about your workplace culture, take action on the feedback your employees have shared.
Communicate the changes you’re making to improve psychological safety based on their feedback – this helps employees feel heard and that you value their opinions.
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