Psychological Safety: What It Is and Why It's Important at Work

You Create Psychological Safety for Employees When You Allow Two Things

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What is psychological safety, especially when it comes to the workplace? According to noted Harvard Business School professor and TED Talks speaker Amy Edmondson, it’s “a shared belief held by teammates that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”

This essentially means that you can take some risks without the fear of losing your job. Employees must know they can speak up without losing their jobs, being disciplined, or suffering another form of workplace punishment. This doesn’t mean you are providing a lawless work environment, of course. If you foster a toxic workplace or even sexually harass another employee, that’s not a mistake; it’s a deliberate action. 

Here are two behaviors that you want to encourage in your workplace which demonstrate why psychological safety is essential.

Risk-Taking

If you take the same actions today that you took yesterday and you intend to do the same thing tomorrow, you won’t keep up with the ever-changing customer environment and the needs of your business. Psychological safety is important for your employees so they feel comfortable taking risks. 

Harvard Business Review explains how one business, Upworthy, approached risk-taking. Upworthy’s founding editor writes:

  • Ask your team members to come up with 15 solutions to a problem the company is currently facing.
  • Examine your company’s blueprints and ask your staff, from execs to interns, “How many ways could we rearrange our space to make our work more efficient?”
  • Make 20 mockups for every design change.
  • If you are a manager, stop answering questions. Instead, respond with, “What do you think?” And then wait. After an answer is given ask, “What else?” And then wait. Repeat five to seven more times to help the employee expand their answer.

In these scenarios, psychological safety can play a pivotal role in the success of the team.

Employees need to feel comfortable contributing their own potential solutions. For example, an intern who feels comfortable suggesting how you can change the arrangement of the department clearly feels psychologically safe. Encouraging people to give ideas requires safety.If you ask for ideas and then yell at staff for coming up with an unworthy or unusable solution, they won’t feel psychologically safe and they will not willingly take risks. Team-shared beliefs are important indicators of this phenomenon. Researchers found that statements such as "If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you,” "It is safe to take a risk on this team," and "No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that would undermine my efforts,” give an indication of the level of psychological safety of the team. To get your employees to take risks, they need to be on a team where they feel that their ideas won’t result in punishment. 

Whistleblowing­

Many companies don’t want whistleblowers, but psychological safety is a benefit when you want to encourage employees to speak up. A whistleblower brings something that is wrong to the attention of a person with authority. You want to create a work environment in which your employees are comfortable bringing the problem to your company’s human resources staff or your risk management officer, rather than sharing the problem with the media.

If an employee feels safe, they will bring up issues before they result in fines and other legal consequences for your organization. 

For instance, consider the case of sexual harassment. A University of Massachusetts Amherst study found that 99.8% of people who are sexually harassed do not formally report the harassment. Why don’t they report it? Because a high percentage of companies retaliate against employees who report sexual harassment. According to data from the EEOC, which is summarized in a report from the Center for Employment Equity at University of Massachusetts Amherst:

  • 68% of sexual harassment charges include an allegation of employer retaliation, this rate being highest for black women.
  • 64% of sexual harassment charges are associated with job loss, this rate being highest for white women and white men.” 

In other words, people don’t feel psychologically safe to report a serious problem because they aren’t safe.

This lack of psychological safety puts your company at risk because it allows bad behavior to continue. Whether the problem is sexual harassment, racial discrimination, or OSHA violations, it’s to your company’s advantage to know about the problem before it becomes bigger or before the employee goes to the media or an attorney.

Your employees need to feel psychologically safe. You cannot fake a safe environment with empty promises. You need to act on your promises. For example, you need to provide a way for employees to remain anonymous when they report a problem, and you must investigate every claim. Failure to do so makes employees feel uncomfortable and not psychologically safe.

Remember, psychological safety isn’t just about being nice to your employees. You need to provide feedback and a workplace in which you are open and honest with them. Creating psychological safety is also about admitting your own mistakes. In an environment in which the boss can admit that they were wrong, employees will be willing to make mistakes, take risks, and speak up when they see a problem.

The Bottom Line

Paying attention to all of these factors makes your workplace a better, safer place to work for managers and employees. This results in happier employees who are eager to serve customers. Psychological safety benefits everyone.

 

Article Sources

  1. Administrative Science Quarterly. "Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams, pg. 350." Accessed February 4, 2020.

  2. Harvard Business Review. “How to Push Your Team to Take Risks and Experiment.” Accessed Jan. 20, 2020.

  3. Edmonson, Amy. “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams.” Accessed Jan. 20, 2020.

  4. University of Massachusetts - Amherst: Center for Employment Equality. “Employer's Responses to Sexual Harassment.”  Accessed Jan. 26, 2020.

  5. University of Massachusetts - Amherst: Center for Employment Equality. “Employer's Responses to Sexual Harassment.” Accessed Jan. 26, 2020.

  6. SHRM. “HR Should Educate Employees About Protecting Whistleblowers' Rights.” Accessed Jan. 20, 2020.

  7. Harvard Business Review. “Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace.” Accessed Jan. 20, 2020.