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Psychological safety – How HRs, leaders, and employees can champion it

19 min read

psychological safety

What makes some teams function better than others?

Google, a company that sits above many companies in terms of culture, engagement, and desirability, conducted a deep study to find out the factors that are most important for creating high-performing teams. The People Operations team, which was conducting the study, were surprised to find that the number one influential factor was not the level of education, work ethic, or diversity of thought.

It was psychological safety.

Harvard Professor, Amy C. Edmondson, described psychological safety as “the belief that one can speak up without risk of punishment or humiliation.” She found that psychological safety was the strong predictor of team efficacy. When team members are psychologically safe, they take risks and learn from their mistakes, leading to learning behavior and improved team performance.

What is the true value of psychological safety, and how do you build it in the workplace?

The value of psychological safety  

As this article from Forbes rightly said:

“More than psychological safety’s presence being a boon, its absence can impede progress, hinder creativity and stifle both individual and collective growth within an organization.”

But for some organizations, the absence of psychological safety can have even more devastating effects. For example, in 2003, when NASA’s space shuttle disintegrated while re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, it killed all 7 people on board. Two weeks before the tragedy happened, one engineer did have concerns about the shuttle but did not speak up during a meeting.

Later, NASA provided a platform called the Safety Culture program for its community to voice concerns without repercussions.

When employees perceive their workplace environment as a safe one in which they can openly communicate, they are more likely to contribute their best performance and innovative ideas, participating in all aspects. But it doesn’t stop there, psychological safety also does more than that. Check out the graph below:

mental wellbeing at workplace

HR, leaders, and employees: The interlocking gears of psychological safety 

While psychological safety is a shared responsibility, as Alber Bandura said, “When everyone is responsible, no one is responsible.” When responsibility is shared among a group, individuals are less likely to take personal responsibility.

But culture is co-created, and no single person is solely responsible. Instead, HRs, leaders, and employees play different critical roles in fostering psychological safety.

psychological safety

First, let’s understand the role of HR in the same.

What role does HR play in fostering an environment where employees feel safe to speak up and share ideas?

Compare Eastman Kodak’s case with USAA (United Services Automobile Association), a financial services company, that has NPS (Net Promoter Score) four times higher than the industry average and its customer satisfaction scores are way ahead of the competition.

While Kodak and USAA operate in different industries, USAA too could have lost customers, ultimately leading to a negative brand image and decreased revenue.

Employees at USAA know that their voices are heard. At every level, regardless of position, employees are encouraged to submit innovative ideas. USAA has received more than 10,000 ideas, out of which 900 have been awarded patents, and became integral parts of how USAA does business. These ideas come from the ground level and ultimately improve the company’s offerings.

In fact, USAA is also known as one of the world’s most innovative companies with the best HR practices.

HR plays 3 active roles:

  • Laying the foundation – Setting clear guidelines and processes so employees feel safe from retaliation and can voice concerns.
  • Creating the atmosphere – Providing programs and safe reporting mechanisms, encouraging employees to learn and take risks.
  • Maintaining the balance – Conducting regular assessments and integrating psychological safety in all human resource aspects, fostering a culture of continuous learning and development.

1.  Laying the foundation

Imagine psychological safety as a house. To lay the foundation means to set a bedrock upon which trust, and open communication can flourish. By establishing clear guidelines and processes, HRs send a clear message that they value employees’ voice, ideas, and concerns.

  • Clear guidelines and channels for employees to voice concerns anonymously.
  1. Surveys
  2. Open-door policy
  3. Skip-level meetings
  4. Forum
  5. Exit interviews

2.  Creating the atmosphere

This role emphasizes HR’s role in creating the environment within the foundation laid by clear guidelines. These initiatives foster trust and allow psychological safety to take root within the organization.

  • Open communication
  1. Anonymous feedback channels
  2. Anti-retaliation policy, disciplinary action
  3. Regular town hall meetings or Q&A sessions for communication about company decisions
  4. Internal communication channels, like newsletters, forums, or internal social media platform
  5. Employee resource groups to provide safe spaces for open communication
  • Leadership development programs to promote psychological safety
  1. Set clear goals for leaders centered around psychological safety
  2. Encourage incorporation of learned capabilities into day-to-day work

3.  Maintaining the balance

HR works to maintain the psychological safe environment they have helped create. Psychological safety requires constant work and ongoing development.

  • Continuous growth
  1. Recognize behaviors that contribute to a psychological safe workplace environment
  2. Learning culture
  3. Regular audits

How leaders can build psychological safety: Strategies for empowering your team

As Charles Duhigg said, “…The route to establishing psychological safety begins with the team’s leader.”

Psychological safety is needed individually, but for team members to feel comfortable, share suggestions, or challenge the status quo without fear of consequences, leadership is to be depended on. To demonstrate such leadership behaviors, investment in leadership development programs is vital. It equips them to embody these behaviors and foster psychological safety across their teams and the whole organization.

Think of it like this:

Psychological safety – Leaders pave the way; employees walk the path. 

If leaders themselves fail to demonstrate a commitment to psychological safety, HR initiatives will struggle to gain traction. While HR can provide training and resources, it’s the leaders who need to be held accountable for creating a safe space within their teams.

In fact, more and more organizations have already begun doing it.

For instance, there’s Supercell, a popular mobile game company. It takes a unique approach to failure. When a game has failed in its development process, Supercell celebrates it. Not the actual failure, but rather the things they have learned from it. In weekly meetings, teams that killed off their game share the lessons learned – with the rest of the organization.

P4Q, a Spanish manufacturer of electronic systems, also does psychological safety brilliantly. During meetings, the facilitator ensures that the speaking time is equally distributed. Is someone speaking for too long? They intervene. Is someone very quiet? They create a stage for them to talk comfortably. They ensure everyone feels heard and can speak up.

As you may observe, initiatives such as these and Google Geist require leadership commitment. Here are some ways a leader or a manager can make psychological safety a reality for their team:

1.  Review current leadership practices

According to McKinsey Global Survey (2021), if leaders demonstrate certain behaviors, they can drive psychological safety. Leaders who follow an authoritative leadership style – relying on command-and-control approach and expecting unquestioning obedience – discourage employees from expressing concerns or offering ideas. Instead, leadership styles like supportive and consultative greatly aid in creating a positive team culture.

2.  Embrace mistakes, encourage growth

One great way leaders can build a psychologically safe workplace is by beginning to role model how to handle failure. By encouraging everyone to admit and learn from their mistakes while contributing ideas comfortably, leaders can set the tone for the team. Once this is normalized, it allows team members to visually see that being open and learning from mistakes does not result in ridicule or harm, which can motivate them to take more interpersonal risks and make more progress.

In fact, companies like Netflix have made it a part of their core values to admit mistakes openly and freely. Reed Hastings has also admitted mistakes as the CEO, demonstrating that everyone is susceptible to making mistakes.

3.  Lead with openness

As a leader, showing openness with the team is crucial. This can be done in terms of:

  • Feedback
  1. Regularly ask the team for feedback on leadership style, communication, and team processes.
  2. Appreciate the feedback, showing that their thoughts are valued.
  3. Address the feedback in a timely manner and show commitment to working on areas for improvement.
  • Challenging the status quo
  1. Welcome challenges to the status quo and encourage the team to propose new ideas.
  2. Seek and value diverse perspectives.
  3. Discuss the reasoning behind existing processes and show a willingness to adapt.
  • Creating a culture of learning
  1. Shift the focus from blame to learning.
  2. Discuss how it can be prevented from happening again.
  3. Reassure that no unconventional or outlandish ideas will be ridiculed or criticized.
  4. Don’t immediately dismiss an idea, listen to the reasoning and explore potential modifications.
  5. Acknowledge and appreciate all ideas regardless of whether they are implemented.

4. Facilitate balanced participation

One way leaders can ensure balanced participation is by utilizing diverse participation techniques like round-robin brainstorming, anonymous idea submission, etc. This makes it clear that it’s okay for anyone to ask questions or offer different perspectives, even if they seem uncertain.

Leaders who exhibit these behaviors and promote psychological safety within their teams will observe a 50% increase in productivity, 76% more engagement, 27% reduction in turnover, and 74% less stress!

Now that we’ve explored how leaders and HRs are responsible for creating psychological safety, let’s dive into the role we as individuals play.

Employee behaviors that contribute to a psychologically safe environment 

As individuals, we are responsible for maintaining our own psychological safety. We can do it by:

  • Speaking up and clearly communicating boundaries to others. This includes expressing specific expectations, ideas, or any aspects that contribute to well-being.
  • Admitting mistakes. It’s important to practice self-compassion, especially in challenging situations. Understand that making mistakes is a big part of learning and growth.
  • Seeking and giving feedback. By understanding how we are perceived, we can reduce blind spots and build confidence.
  • Celebrating risks and innovation. By viewing risks as opportunities to learn and develop, we can embrace a growth mindset. This can also contribute to a sense of autonomy.

We are also responsible for how we foster psychological safety around us. This includes:

  • Supporting colleagues. Individuals should commit themselves to being open, avoiding ridicule, and creating a safe space.
  • Practicing empathy, like giving full attention to a person – not to respond, but to understand. Validate their feelings without judgement and don’t try to minimize their experience by comparing it. Empathy allows people to connect with others on a deeper level.

Measuring psychological safety in the workplace 

While fostering a psychologically safe environment is key, simply saying it’s important isn’t enough. Leaders need to assess how their team is experiencing it. This is where measurement comes in.

Timothy Clark, in his book “The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety,” argues that the key to innovative ideas does not require geniuses, but a foundation of trust and psychological safety within teams. He outlines four stages that teams progress through to achieve psychological safety. Let’s explore them along with actionable tips.

psychological safety stages

1. Inclusion safety:

This stage is the foundation upon which all other stages are built. Employees in this stage have a feeling of belonging, of being accepted and valued as a member of the team, regardless of background or experience.

What it means for leaders: If the team lacks inclusion safety, leaders will notice that newcomers struggle to fit in. This stifles diverse perspectives and inclusion.

Do this: Actively listen to all team members, avoid interrupting, and celebrate diverse viewpoints. Also, set clear expectations for respectful interactions and inclusivity.

2. Learner safety:

Team members feel comfortable asking questions, making mistakes, and trying new things without fear of judgment or ridicule.

What it means for leaders: A lack of learner safety leads to a culture where employees are silent, hide mistakes, and hesitate to learn. The team becomes afraid to take risks and explore new ideas.

Do this: Publicly acknowledge that it’s okay to make mistakes and emphasize valuable learning opportunities. Focus on providing specific, actionable feedback to help the team improve.

3. Contributor safety:

Employees are empowered to leverage their skills to contribute to the team’s goals. They feel a sense of accountability and ownership for outcomes.

What it means for leaders: Without contributor safety, team members feel underutilized or unsure of their roles. This hinders the team’s ability to achieve its full potential.

Do this: Delegate effectively so that each team member’s strengths are leveraged, providing opportunities for growth. Give them the autonomy to make decisions within their area of expertise.

4. Challenger safety:

This is the pinnacle of psychological safety. Team members feel comfortable disagreeing, challenging the status quo, and proposing innovative ideas without fear.

What it means for leaders: The absence of challenger safety leads to groupthink, a phenomenon that occurs within a group where the desire for harmony or conformity overrides critical thinking. It leads to irrational decisions and poor outcomes. Leaders will be missing out on groundbreaking ideas.

Do this: Encourage healthy debate during brainstorming sessions. Reward team members who take calculated risks and propose innovative ideas, even if they don’t always succeed.

By fostering psychological safety at all four stages, leaders can create an environment with groundbreaking innovations that propel the organization forward. But how can one know if they are successfully nurturing such an environment? This is where pulse surveys come in.

These quick, strategic check-ins provide valuable insights into team dynamics and the leadership impact on psychological safety. Use targeted questions that address the core aspects of psychological safety. For example:

  • “I feel safe to share my ideas in meetings, even if they differ from the majority.”
  • “If I make a mistake, I know my team will support me in learning.”
  • “It’s easy for me to ask colleagues for help when I need it.”

To encourage honest feedback, ensure responses are anonymous, particularly in cultures where direct communication is less common. After the responses have been assessed, compare psychological safety scores across teams and investigate the “why” behind variances. Lower scores might indicate leadership styles that stifle open communication and so on.

Remember, the goal isn’t just data collection. Address issues with specific actions, like leadership training programs, team-building exercises, etc. By acting on these insights, organizations can create an environment where all employees feel empowered to contribute their best selves.

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    Meet the author

    Nikitha Joyce

    Content Writer

    Nikitha Joyce is a content writer at Keka Technologies. She loves exploring HR topics and turning them into thrilling tales. Nikitha is a dark fiction enthusiast who is a fan of anime, books, and horror tales.

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