We spend a significant proportion of our lives at work – a quick Google will give you figures like one third or 90,000 hours over a lifetime. Whatever the actual number is for each of us, it’s a lot.
So, how do we make the places where we spend so much of our time good places to be? What are the ingredients of a healthy workplace?
Here’s an essential one: psychological safety.
What is psychological safety?
Psychological safety involves feeling safe to take ‘interpersonal risks’, like speaking up, sharing your ideas, stating your concerns, voicing dissenting opinions, and acknowledging your mistakes. A psychologically safe workplace creates a culture that encourages – rather than punishes – these kinds of behaviours, reducing people’s fears about damage to their self-image, status, or career if they engage actively and authentically at work. It encourages growth, learning, and change for individuals and for the whole organization.
Why does psychological safety at work matter?
Psychological safety in the workplace isn’t just a nice idea – it has real-life consequences. For example, research suggests that higher psychological safety contributes to things like better collaboration, greater trust, increased engagement (e.g., in training and quality assurance initiatives), higher job satisfaction, and better overall performance at work. Research also, unsurprisingly, suggests that a lack of psychological safety at work contributes to things like stress, burnout, and job turnover.
How can you help build psychological safety at work?
For some people, a sense of psychological safety comes more easily, even if the workplace culture doesn’t support it. For example, you’re more likely to feel psychologically safe if you generally tend to be more proactive, secure, open, and have more of a ‘growth mindset’ – meaning, you see skills as things that can be learned with effort rather than innate talents, and mistakes as essential to learning rather than signs of inadequacy. But even if you have these traits, a workplace culture that fosters psychological safety is essential to thriving at work (and outside of it).
So, try some of the suggestions below to help build a psychologically safe workplace.
If you’re in a leadership position:
Focus on relationship-building, equity, and inclusivity. Get to know the people who report to you and build trust with them by being consistent (e.g., follow through on what you say you’ll do, don’t cancel or frequently reschedule meetings, manage your own stress so that your mood doesn’t fluctuate widely at work), supportive (e.g., check in on people’s work and wellbeing, ask what they need from you, respond with empathy and understanding when they share challenges, encourage self-care and boundaries), and fair (e.g., don’t favour some people over others, provide equal opportunities as well as reasonable accommodations that take into account people’s diverse needs, strengths, and limitations).
Take a growth mindset and improvement orientation with the people who report to you. Validate and reward initiative, effort, and incremental improvements. Respond to mistakes with understanding, and use them as opportunities for collaboration, mutual problem-solving, and empowerment (e.g., asking what that person thinks would be a good step to correct the mistake they’ve shared, what they’ve learned from that mistake, etc.).
Provide structure and clear, explicit, reasonable expectations and objectives.
Don’t underestimate the power of modeling! Speak up, share your ideas, respectfully voice your opinions or disagreement, and acknowledge your mistakes with accountability and without self-criticism,
If you aren’t in a leadership position, many of the same suggestions apply!
Focus on relationship-building with your colleagues. Be curious, kind, open, and supportive.
Practice building a growth mindset. Remind yourself that, while some skills may come more naturally to us than others, most (maybe all) skills can be learned or improved with effort and time. When you make mistakes, treat them as information you can use rather than indictments of your abilities. Be curious rather than judgmental: what factors led to that mistake? Were you missing information? Were you tired, stressed, unfocused? What could you do differently next time?
Again, model what you would like to see: take some of those interpersonal risks by sharing your ideas, thoughts, opinions, and mistakes. The exception, of course, being if your work culture tends to punish those things – in that case, advocate for policies and practices that support psychological safety.
It takes time and effort to build psychological safety, but the pay off? A healthier workplace where people feel free to show up authentically and to engage actively. Unquestionably worth it.
Used with permission from MindBeacon.