Workplace 5 minute read

Building Trust and Collaboration: How to Harness the Power of Psychological Safety in the Workplace

Safety—both physical and mental—is a basic human need. When we feel safe, we feel and work better. So, it makes sense that establishing psychological safety needs to be on every organisation's agenda.

In recent times, this is more important than ever. Why? Because, as we continue to navigate a post-pandemic climate, it's become clear that how we work, communicate and what we tolerate in the workplace has changed. Norms have shifted. Technology has developed. So, it only stands to reason that leadership strategies are developing too.  

According to research by BetterUp, the average worker wants more equity, action, mental health stability and support from their employer than ever before. A psychologically safe work environment lays the foundation for all of these things, and helps organisations attract—and retain—engaged, high performing teams. So, how can we make this happen?

 

What is psychological safety?

Workplace psychological safety is all about feeling like you can take risks. Risks to speak up, make mistakes, collaborate, and be professionally vulnerable—all without being judged, punished or ridiculed. 

Amy Edminson, the Harvard professor to coin this term, describes it to be “interpersonal risk taking”, and the positive impact it has on the workplace is significant. 

The benefits of building psychological safety are twofold: employees experience them on an individual level, and an organisation experiences them on a wider professional level.

Personal benefits

Professional benefits

A workplace that fosters a sense of safety, inclusion and autonomy allows employees to feel:

When employees experience the above benefits, an organisation can expect to experience:

Examples of workplace psychological safety

So, what does psychological safety look like in the workplace?

Giving employees autonomy 

Managers can give employees the go-ahead to negotiate, structure and approach their work in a way that makes sense to them. 

Research has shown that by encouraging employees to exercise job agency, you’re also encouraging employees to feel:

Ensuring reflection is a part of every role’s regular development

Providing opportunities for employees to actively reflect on their work is a great way to keep communication channels open and honest in the workplace. 

Through one-to-one and team reflection sessions, employees can build their confidence and ease in expressing issues or points of interest that may be affecting their work.

Engaging all employees in decision making

An essential and vital part of ensuring employees feel connected, included and valued is bringing them into discussions and decisions about their work.

By engaging employees with decision making for both their individual roles, and for the wider team, you avoid harmful information silos and misunderstandings.

 

The building blocks of workplace psychological safety 

For most people, trust and confidence takes time to build. So, it stands to reason that fully cultivating a psychologically safe workplace will also take time. 

When broken down into parts, we can measure psychological safety in the workplace in four stages. As you and your employees grow and continue to adopt the right practices and behaviours for psychological safety at work, you’ll find your team naturally progressing through each building stage.

  1. Inclusion safety

    The first of the building blocks, inclusion safety is all about ensuring team members feel calm in the workplace. At this level, team members should:

    - Feel accepted in the workplace
    - Feel comfortable in their work environment
    - Feel like a valuable team member

  2. Learner Safety

    After establishing a feeling of belonging, learner safety should begin to develop. This is when team members start to feel like they can ask questions, and explore their role without fear of judgement.

    This step should also establish to the employee that small mistakes can (and will) happen, and that they should be dealt with by asking for support and help.

  3. Contributor Safety

    Once their space in the team feels more concrete, employees should start to experience contributor safety.

    In this block, employees will find they have more confidence to practise interpersonal risk taking and will naturally share their opinions and ideas more often.

  4. Challenger Safety

    The fourth and final block is challenger safety. In this block, employees not only present ideas, but feel safe to challenge and raise concerns within team discussions.

    Interpersonal trust, constructive feedback and mutual respect are core components of this stage.

 

How to create psychological safety within your team

Look at your leadership style

Since the pandemic, a spotlight has shone on mental health in the workplace. By consequence, companies now hold increasingly less space for authoritative leadership style

In its place, managers who adopt a consultative or supportive leadership style are experiencing far greater results in their employees’ wellbeing and overall performance. Why?

Because, these leadership styles are rooted in openly communicating and problem-solving with their colleagues, helping to build and maintain their team's psychological safety.

Get vulnerable 

Trust is a two way street. You can’t expect your employees to be honest with you if you’re not being honest with them. In fact, asking your team for unyielding candour and transparency without reciprocating it will likely damage psychological safety in the long run.

Professional vulnerability is key to building trust within the workplace. Expressing your difficulties, asking for help, and sharing your concerns as a manager is the best way to show your team that it’s safe for them to do the same.
In the same way, owning up to your mistakes and displaying efforts to actively problem-solve solutions with your team is a great way to demonstrate your trust in their abilities. 

Encourage the right behaviours in your team

If leaders are the facilitators of psychological safety, your team members are essential participators.

It's important that all every person at every level in the organisation have a shared belief that maintaining psychological safety is in everyone's best interest. Leaders can do this by encouraging team members to:

  • Build strong interpersonal relationships within the workplace
  • Share smaller leadership opportunities within tasks (e.g. rotating the host of the team’s weekly meetings every week)
  • Practise active listening and be fully present with one another
  • Challenge the status quo with new ideas
  • Develop a growth mindset

Make learning a primary goal

Learning on the job and psychological safety go hand-in-hand. Most workplaces value and champion the idea of lifelong learning, and this value can be supercharged in a psychologically safe work climate.

Your team’s learning integrity and capability will grow exponentially if every individual feels:

  • Safe to ask questions
  • Ready to take interpersonal risks
  • Able to challenge out-dated corporate structures
  • Able to exercise autonomy over their roles

Encourage the people on your team to develop, expand and explore within and past the boundaries of their role. With guidance, this learning will keep employees engaged, raise team effectiveness, and improve overall wellbeing.

 

Social emotional skills that will help you embed psychological safety

As a leader, cultivating a thriving culture of psychological safety is likely already a priority. However—like most things in a work environment—it’s important to arm yourself with the right skillset to embed it effectively.

There are key emotional and social skills managers that will allow you to create the building blocks of psychological safety in your team and develop shared trust.. 

Emotional Skills

Emotional intelligence is vital when trying to promote psychological safety in the workplace. That's why it's important leaders possess strong interpersonal skills, such as:    

  • Empathy
  • Compassion
  • Vulnerability
  • Respect
  • Humility
  • Self-awareness

Social skills

Understanding how to navigate the social dynamics within a workplace to help foster psychological safety among all team members is imperative. For this, you’ll require the following social skills:

  • Communication—the ability to engage in respectful dialogue, feedback and constructive criticism
  • Cultural and situational awareness
  • Awareness and understanding of unconscious bias
  • Proactive active listening

Social and emotional skills tend to feel more ambiguous and “hard to learn,” than hard skills. But they can all be developed with the right guidance and education. Corporate training for leaders within employee wellbeing is a great first step to bridging skills gaps needed to effectively create and maintain psychological safety in the workplace.

 

We’d love to have a chat about how we can support you and your team! Get in touch to find out more about our workplace programs.

Smiling Mind

Written by Smiling Mind

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