What Does Psychological Safety Look Like at Work? 

Employees having fun during a meeting

By André Radmall

Steven Bartlett in his book The Diary of a CEO, states that ‘businesses that experiment faster fail faster and then continue to experiment, nearly always outpace the competition.’ He adds that ‘failure gives you power’.  

However, the contemporary world of work can often be a place where people are anxious about making mistakes, possible punishment or even public shaming. This not only erodes resilience but can also reduce productivity and innovation. No one wants to drop the ball. The workplace is fast moving, dispersed, digitalised and diverse. Navigating through this landscape can be stressful and frustrating. Hardly conducive to the kind of innovative thinking Bartlett describes.  

So what is the bridge that can help us travel from fear to flourishing in the world of work today? 

Much has been written about psychological safety as a precondition for navigating through the world of work. Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as ‘the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking’ (1999).  

Here are some pointers for how psychological safety can be fostered in the workplace: 

1. Leaders curate work spaces

When it comes to creating an environment of psychological safety it is important that this is demonstrated ‘from the top’. In whatever sphere of influence, you find yourself, you can make an impact on the atmosphere and culture by how you respond to challenges, mistakes and failures. If you respond with criticism or even frustration, it is likely to increase any tendencies to avoid risk and blame shift in the team. So leaders can foster collaboration and psychologically safe spaces for their teams. This approach will usually be collaborative and inclusive. One of the consequences for the workplace might be that all workers will be invited to contribute to ideas and problem solving.  

2. Conflict can be healthy

In our current ‘cancel culture’ conflict can be seen as risky and possibly leading to various sanctions. However psychological safety is not just about being nice to people. An essential component of psychological safety is the ability to disagree well. For this to work the team needs to agree to having conversations where it’s OK to risk half-formed ideas, to challenge and stress test others thinking and raise objections and questions. This approach is more likely to widen the scope of thinking, ideas and possible solutions. The more this approach is practiced the more there can develop a healthy ability to disagree without it having personal implications. 

3. Authenticity

Psychological safety in the workplace allows people to be themselves. Often people will hide their true feelings behind a wall of apparent compliance and agreement. This is not helpful for innovative problem solving though. Authenticity starts with self awareness of ones own thoughts and feelings that can then be contributed to healthy debate.  This includes being able to ask questions and raise concerns. The trend toward wellbeing and inclusion in the workplace also highlight the importance of authenticity and self-awareness. This can avoid some unhelpful conflict based in a lack of self-awareness and a blame culture.  

4. Ask questions

It is important, particularly for leaders, to help their teams ask questions. One of the key signs that psychological safety is being practiced is the presence of good questions and clean listening. This means listening for new ideas and ways of thinking. This has different results from repeating the received wisdom. The ability to ask questions can open up new work practices and by doing so more innovative and creative options for problem solving and production. This can start with apparently simple questions like ‘why do we do it like this?’  

5. Risk 

Whether in career development or in business meetings there is sometimes a ‘paralysis of analysis’. This means that all possible permutations and possibilities are exhaustively explored, all risks covered off and all options weighed before anything actually happens. This is often a sign of a group that has low psychological safety.  

A team with higher levels of psychological safety will be quicker to move from analysis paralysis to action. They will be less risk adverse and within agreed parameters will be prepared to take acceptable risks in order to progress. This means that any feedback or learning from trying new ideas will come in quicker and adaptions and adjustments can happen faster.  

Summary 

This article has highlighted the importance of psychological safety to the workplace. The key marks that this is present are a collaborative approach to leadership, authenticity, the ability to have healthy conflict, curiosity and risk. For this to happen the workplace would need to be a place where mistakes can be learned from and even embraced as important information. These are also places where questions and curiosity can lead to innovative problem solving. 

About the Author

André RadmallAndré Radmall is a Senior Consultant with ENOLLA Consulting, a Human Inclusion Consultancy that supports organisations create and sustain environments where everyone can reach their human potential. He has been an experienced coach and psychotherapist for over thirty years. As a therapist, coach and actor he has helped individuals rewrite their narratives. His recent best-selling book ‘Get Unstuck, Change the Script, Change your Life’ brilliantly brings insightful questions that lead to lightbulb moments. He has written for various print medias, including The Independent and The Metro. Find out more at www.andreradmall.com

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