Engender Psychological Safety at Work

Would you like to wield a magic wand and create a work environment in which people feel safe enough to take interpersonal risks, try new things, acknowledge mistakes and learn? In other words, a climate in which people do NOT embarrass, reject, or punish one another for speaking up?

This is what you could get if employees feel psychologically safe. A 2017 Gallup poll estimated if leaders could move the current ratio of employees who agree that their opinions count at work from three in 10 to six in 10, organizations could realize a 27% reduction in turnover, a 40% reduction in safety incidents, and a 12% increase in productivity.

According to research conducted as part of the Project Aristotle at Google, psychological safety is one of the defining characteristics of high-performance teams. Coined by Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson, “psychological safety is present when colleagues trust and respect each other and feel able, even obligated, to be candid.”

This does not mean that people will always agree with one another. The challenge is to skillfully speak with candor and openness while maintaining mutual respect. Psychological safety helps people do this.

How psychologically safe do you feel at work? How does feeling it, or not, affect how you behave?

I know when I do not feel safe, it feels like an undertow in my brain. I don’t seem to be as smart or capable of saying what I think. As the energy in my brain shifts from the Central Executive Network to the Default Mode Network, I can become caught in a swell of negative self-rumination.

How can you foster psychological safety so that everyone feels safe enough to contribute ideas, share information, and report mistakes?

Creating psychological safety includes work that leaders need to do and the skills everyone needs to develop.

What Leaders Need to Do

  1. Set the stage for psychological safety by creating a culture in which expectations regarding employee communication are explicit, shared, and rewarded. For example, a leader could state that people are expected to contribute their ideas and share information before each meeting.
  2. Invite participation by asking good questions and listening intently. Say, “We don’t all need to agree. However, we do need to hear from everyone.”
  3. Build agreement on ground rules for forums large and small that encourage people to provide input, generate ideas, and solve problems.
  4. Respond constructively when people speak up. Acknowledge and thank them for their contributions. You can also sanction violations of the desired culture. For example, when an employee gets punished for stating their opinion to a supervisor.
  5. Develop humility. Practice saying, “I don’t know. What do you think?” 
  6. Provide opportunities for everyone to develop interpersonal skills. Practices #1 to #5 above are not easy to master without practice.

This is how you can help create psychological safety in organizations. However, we cannot expect safety to exist everywhere. This is an aspiration. How can each of us learn to navigate unsafe spaces and create safety for ourselves from within? Here are skills that you and everyone in your organization need to know and model every day.

What Everyone Needs to Learn How to Do and Practice

Assess your “safety IQ” below. Print this out and check which of these you do more often than not. Put an asterisk next to the ones you need to practice more.

  • Manage your internal state so that you are able to speak in ways that don’t polarize others with combative words or tone. 
  • Maintain a sense of equanimity when challenged so you can make conscious choices for how to respond vs. react to what others have said.
  • Clarify your intention before speaking up. For example, do you want to contribute an idea or compete for attention?
  • Use your tone of voice and words to indicate you don’t have all the answers; and that you want to draw out the experience and wisdom of others, regardless of where they sit in the organizational hierarchy.
  • Be direct. No end-arounds. Do NOT embarrass, reject, or punish a person in any setting, especially NOT in a meeting with others present.
  • Listen intently. This includes restating what someone has said so you make sure you understand it correctly; and asking open-ended questions to deepen your understanding of what was said.
  • Listen for the common threads in what you and others are saying. Often the way forward is finding the aspects of each person’s comments that point in a particular direction.
  • Reach out to a colleague or friend and ask them to support you by listening, advising, or simply being with you as you sort through your thoughts and emotions. 

Mindfulness meditation has been instrumental in my being able to use these skills as a leader, consultant, and facilitator. In other words, it enables me to swim out of the undertow when I don’t feel safe. To access and apply these skills, I encourage you to practice them in calm waters so you are able to use them in heavy seas, when the undertow of emotional contagion might evoke you or others to fight, flee, or play possum.

I am thrilled that the whole notion of “psychological safety” is gaining currency in organizations. We need to learn to live in an uncertain world. This ability seems more essential than ever as we navigate through a national political environment that appears intent on creating ever more unsafe relational fields among us. 

Engendering psychological safety is a necessary ingredient for the generative social fields I describe in previous posts. Such fields make possible the intense teamwork needed for tackling the complex tasks that face most employees. 

Hoping this is helpful to you,


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