Maybe you’ve already heard of it. “Psychological safety” has become a buzzword in business lately, especially thanks to a massive, two-year study conducted by Google that’s been cited repeatedly in the years since it was published. And now that work has shifted to remote on a large scale, it’s more important than ever yet no less tricky to achieve.
Thankfully, we have some simple and effective strategies to help individuals and organizations create a sense of psychological safety at work.
What is psychological safety?
Buzzy as it is these days, the concept of psychological safety has actually been around for more than two decades. Dr. Amy Edmondson, Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, first coined the term in 1999, saying it “describes perceptions of the consequences of taking interpersonal risks in a particular context such as the workplace.”
In other words, a team that feels psychologically safe feels comfortable enough to be vulnerable, and vulnerability is a key component in creativity, innovation, and productive risk-taking.
Interpersonal risks and psychological safety at work
It’s an inconvenient reality that without a sense of psychological safety, taking the risks that lead to breakthroughs feels like inviting a life-or-death threat. That may seem extreme, but you can blame the human brain. When challenged by a colleague or superior, the amygdala, the brain’s “alarm bell,” triggers a fight-or-flight response, overriding other brain functions and disrupting strategic thinking.
Cultivating psychological safety in the workplace
Avoiding that sense of threat when taking the interpersonal risks that drive innovation means cultivating a mutual sense of psychological safety with leadership and among teams. Here’s how:
Practice the Platinum Rule
You’ve heard of the Golden Rule, but the Platinum Rule takes “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” a step further. In this version, you should treat others not as you want to be treated but as they want to be treated. This philosophy takes into account a diversity of cultures, needs, and feelings—what is important to one person may not be important to another. The Platinum Rule takes an extra bit of empathy, but it goes a long way toward making others feel psychologically safe.
Curiosity is invaluable when it comes to looking toward the future and seeking out your business’s next steps. It also helps build psychological safety because a cornerstone of curiosity is an eagerness to learn and try new things. Keep in mind the old adage that “there are no stupid questions.” People should feel comfortable taking on new topics they aren’t already experts in!
Focus on healthy conflict
Think of “conflict” here more as “debate”. When teams truly feel psychologically safe, it means they aren’t tethered by a fear of messing up or looking foolish. It also means they feel comfortable challenging their peers’ ideas and having their own contributions challenged. Afterall, no idea is perfect from the outset. We all need help working out the kinks.
Promote open communication
Communication is fundamental within any functioning workplace, but it’s especially important when it comes to creating an environment that values psychological safety. After all, the whole point is that people feel comfortable speaking up! Make sure to keep avenues for communication open across departments and leadership hierarchies. Now more than ever, with companies recognizing the need for candid dialogue around racial and cultural inequities in the workplace, healthy communication pathways that allow for honesty, vulnerability, and openness are essential.
Foster mutual trust
It should feel like a given, but the importance of trust must not be overlooked. As Dr. Edmondson’s original research says, psychological safety “describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”
Value effectiveness over efficiency
There’s no way to ignore it: the bottom line is important. It’s how businesses stay in business. In many ways, it’s the point. But when leadership views their teams just as a means to that successful financial end, the importance of people and their psychological safety falls by the wayside. Instead, remember the individual and cultivate community.
Think outside of the box
Creativity is essential in business. Especially as the world moves forward at an ever-quicker pace, innovation often means the difference between success and failure. This is why it’s important to cultivate creativity. But not only that, remember that creative thinking isn’t one-size-fits-all. Building psychologically safe spaces in which people feel comfortable sharing even out-of-the-box ideas will help drive innovation.
Cultivating the space needed to take risks and stretch creative boundaries is essential for innovation and driving businesses toward a successful future. But it’s also important to remember that psychological safety isn’t the same as tranquility. People need to feel comfortable enough to bring their true selves and their best ideas to the table, but they also need healthy challenges that lead to productive debates. Once organizations and teams achieve that mix, there’ll be no limit on how far they can go.