Do you work in an environment that values challenging the status quo, where it is a safe space for respectful conflict, differing opinions are encouraged, and mistakes are valued? If so, you likely work in an organization or on a team that provides and promotes psychological safety.
This term was new to me until I started seeing articles on the topic in my HR news feeds over the last several months. I was intrigued but skeptical, thinking it was just the latest HR jargon. But the more I researched, the more sense it made. According to Amy C. Edmondson, a Harvard Business School professor who has authored seminal work on the topic, psychological safety is defined as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” In essence, it is an environment where differing opinions, values, perspectives, and ideas can be openly shared without fear of negative consequences, and mistakes are viewed as an opportunity to learn. It creates an atmosphere where it is okay to ask questions and clarify. It means that differences are valued, respected, and welcomed, allowing people to bring their authentic selves to their work.
Why is this important?
Human beings are generally hardwired to seek what is safe. For most employees, it feels safer to hold back and stay quiet rather than express an opinion or idea that may result in what feels like public humiliation or rejection. Think of the creativity, ideas, and solutions that may be stifled when employees do not feel psychologically safe. A recent article from the National Safety Council reported that in-person workers who felt psychologically unsafe at work reported an injury rate 16.3% higher than those who felt psychologically safe. The Center for Creative Leadership's survey of nearly 300 leaders indicated that teams with a high level of psychological safety reported higher levels of performance and lower levels of interpersonal conflict.
Psychological safety is also a critical factor in the success of workplace DEI programs. Michigan State University says it well:
"An important part of psychological safety is valuing diversity, equity, and inclusion. Employees feeling able to be their whole selves at work means they can exhibit their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, background, family status, and any other part of their identity without judgment. Intertwining psychological safety with diversity and inclusion efforts in the workplace allows employees to feel safe being themselves since their diversity is welcomed."
Making psychological safety in your workplace part of your culture is a process that takes time to develop. It starts with the top levels of leadership and requires strong listening and communication skills. It begins with leaders acknowledging their fallibility and modeling behavior that does not lay blame but focuses on what has been learned and how that learning can be applied. Over time, a workplace reflecting psychological safety will evolve.
Is your organization ready for the journey?