If you read leadership publications, listen to leadership podcasts, or follow leaders on social media, you’ve probably heard a lot about psychological safety recently.
The concept has been in leadership conversations since 2014 when Harvard Business School researcher Amy Edmondson introduced it in her TED talk. But the COVID-19 pandemic, remote working, global lockdowns, and recent social justice movements have made it a pressing issue.
An environment of psychological safety is one where it’s okay for everyone to be who they are, to disagree, and to say they don’t understand.
Psychological safety is not about building relationships at all costs by avoiding difficult conversations and allowing people to whine.
Think about a time when you felt comfortable enough to be the real you. The conditions that existed when you felt that way probably involved trust, respect, honesty, and shared values. Those are the four keys to an environment of psychological safety.
Why is psychological safety so important?
The Predictive Index’s 2019 People Management Report found that managers who create psychologically safe work environments are less likely to experience employee turnover on their teams.
In addition, psychological safety is particularly important during this moment in history when lockdowns and widespread remote working have affected workers’ mental health in ways we may never be able to quantify. People haven’t been able to socialize, and employees who were hired remotely have never met their boss or colleagues in person.
As leaders try to figure out when, if, and how to bring people back to the physical workplace, they need to prioritize psychological safety.
How to promote psychological safety in the workplace
As a manager, you have more influence over your teams’ careers than anyone else they work with. Part of your job should be promoting psychological safety in the workplace—for both human and performance reasons.
But many people currently feel like they can’t approach their manager. To ensure that your direct reports feel that they can be themselves around you, practice promoting psychological safety in these five ways.
1. Promote psychological safety by getting to know people and letting them get to know you
Psychological safety is often about being there when your people need you. But first, they need to know you are there and genuinely willing to listen.
I heard this anecdote in a recent coaching session: “During my interview and orientation process, my boss appeared really approachable and open. But as time has gone by, I barely ever hear from him.”
Getting to know people isn’t a one-off event when they first join the organization. It’s a regular practice to build a relationship with each individual on your team—who are all different people and require different things from you.
Spend time getting to know:
- What drives them
- Their interests
- What energizes and de-energizes them
- What they need from you to get the best out of them
It’s also important to share your answers on the topics above.
2. Promote psychological safety by being present and paying attention
Have you ever been in a conversation or a meeting when you tried several times to say something but were talked over or ignored? When this happens, people are much less likely to speak up again in the future.
Here’s how to show people you truly value them and their opinion:
- Listen with the intent to understand, not confirm what you already know.
- Show you’re listening by asking follow-up questions or recapping what they said.
- Ask everyone for their view and allow different modes of contribution.
- Listen before you speak so as not to dilute the contribution if you give your view first.
3. Promote psychological safety by behaving with integrity and setting the example for others
Another coaching client recently said to me, “The reason I hold back from letting my true self be seen is that the boss sometimes tells me about conversations she has with others.”
As a manager, one of the best ways you can promote psychological safety is always to behave with the utmost integrity:
- Make expectations clear and live them out in every interaction.
- Speak about people as though they were present.
- Demonstrate genuine respect and concern.
- Don’t disclose private conversations.
- Respect all, not just those who can do something for you.
- Speak up when others don’t adhere to this standard of integrity.
4. Promote psychological safety by displaying curiosity and seeking feedback
As a manager, you deliver lots of feedback to the team. The way you deliver it has a lot to do with their experience of psychological safety:
- Choose the right time and place.
- Generally, criticize in private and praise in public.
- Ask questions and challenge in a way that respects the other person.
- Invite your team to challenge you.
- Be willing to admit when you’re wrong.
- Seek feedback from others and take action on it.
5. Establish the team’s rules of engagement
To promote psychological safety in the team dynamic, your intention should be to create an environment where everyone is comfortable admitting what they don’t know and challenging when they see something that isn’t right.
All team members need to trust each other to be able to speak up honestly. Here’s how to build trust among the team:
- Have get-to-know-you conversations to gradually build up familiarity.
Let people share good things that have happened recently, what they’re struggling with, their interests, and things from their youth that they’re proud of.
- Have conversations about work-related issues.
Let people share what they value about different team member’s contributions, and eventually, what gets in the way of team productivity and communication.
- Establish the rules of engagement.
Discuss, as a group, how you might be more effective in the future. Cover how you communicate, value each other, and handle conflict.
- Make it an ongoing conversation.
Keep assessing how your rules of engagement are working. Appoint a different person to check-in at the end of each business meeting.
It’s okay to get these principles wrong sometimes. Creating an environment of psychological safety takes time, and you may have to unlearn old ways of communicating. Let your team know that you’re going to make mistakes, and so will they, but the important thing is for everyone to admit their mistakes and keep learning.
Core Strengths has the tools and technology to help your organization promote psychological safety in the workplace. To learn more, watch our on-demand webinar, How to Promote Psychological Safety with Relationship Intelligence.