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How to Create Psychological Safety in the Workplace

September 13, 2022 Employee Experience
Kaya Ismail
By Kaya Ismail

The past few years have brought many issues to the forefront of the workplace discussion, and mental health quickly climbed the agenda for organizational leaders. Workplace psychological safety is becoming more prominent as a topic of conversation, with good reason.

Multiple studies have demonstrated the role psychological safety plays in employee engagement and attrition success, according to a March article in Forbes. The article cites a study by MIT Sloan School of Management, for instance, where a toxic culture was found to be 10 times more likely to be a predictor of attrition. But beyond individual well-being, psychological safety is a requirement for business growth, continuity and competitiveness, as Maren Gube and Debra Sabatini Hennelly argued in a recent Harvard Business Review article.  

"Psychological safety in the workplace examines the ability of employees to bring their full selves to work and have a true sense of job security when they do it," said Laura Woolford, chief people officer at Austin, Texas-based AlertMedia. "This can have a significant impact on an employee's mental health and ability to perform a role at their full potential, which helps boost productivity, innovation and, ultimately, the bottom line." 

Psychological Safety in a Remote Workplace

One of the main challenges of a remote workplace, corporate leaders say, is building and maintaining a strong culture. Managers report finding it more difficult to get a pulse on employees' state of mind and ensure they have a safe environment to conduct their work.

Part of this is because remote working can remove some emotional cues such as body language, which, as humans, we rely on to form part of our communications. Remote work also entails more formal and written communications as opposed to face-to-face informal chats. Finally, remote work often means dispersed workers, where colleagues may rarely be online at the same time.

All of this adds pressure on leaders to oversee the employee experience. And while offering psychological safety has become critical in today's workplace, it doesn't have to be challenging, regardless of the work model. 

Here are six ways to help organizational leaders achieve a psychologically safe working environment.

1. Don't Play the Blame Game

The blame game is pointing fingers at one employee or a couple of employees when something doesn't go as planned. Errors that occur in the workplace can rarely be attributed to a single individual or be pinned down as the result of one single thing.

Often, the problem is more complex: Was the employee trained properly? Did they have access to support? Was there a software issue that could have been avoided with a different technology? There are many considerations that can help address the issue and prevent it from re-occurring. 

Even when the error stems from one employee mistake, blaming that person directly — especially if doing so publicly, in front of coworkers — can negatively affect their performance, mainly if they are preoccupied with fear over the mistake. A more positive outlook focused on learning from mistakes is more likely to help improve processes, build confidence and move the team forward.

Related Article: Don't Deal With Employee Dissent This Way

2. Taking an Active and Engaged Role

To thrive and feel engaged by their work environment, employees need to know leadership understands and cares about them. Effective managers listen to team members and value their opinions and actions. Acknowledging a positive contribution is a simple yet effective way to boost an employee's motivation.

Leaders should also look at their body behaviors. Nodding when employees are speaking shows they are listening and paying attention. This is particularly vital in the remote workplace, where it's easy to multitask and appear distracted on camera.

Managers who spend time on a video call responding to emails or doing tasks other than listening to the team can convey a message that they don't care and there are more important things to do. In turn, employees who pick up on these cues may be less inclined to speak up, even with good ideas. 

3. Building Self-Awareness

Employees shouldn't be viewed as monotonous workers without personality, preference or work style. Every person on the team brings their uniqueness to the process. It's that diversity of thought and perspectives that make great teams, where people can learn from each other, complement strengths or counter weaknesses.

The same is true of managers, and leaders should ensure everyone in the organization is self-aware, finding ways to use the talents of their team to counter their own weaknesses. Behavioral assessments could be a great way to bring out everyone's strengths and weaknesses to help visualize the complementarity of the team and highlight the importance of each member.

Related Article: Employee Feedback Is Critical to a Great Employee Experience

4. Broadening the Decision-Making Process

Including every member of the team in decision-making process is an excellent way to not only innovate and unearth new ways of doing things, it also helps leaders get buy-in on decisions that may not always be fun and games. It makes employees feel like they're part of the solution and shows they bring value to the organization.

While leaders will always have the final say, including others' perspective, when in a team setting, is an integral part of psychological safety; team members should know that their opinion matters.

"Psychological safety is rooted in a sense of being heard and acknowledged," said Richard Winters, MD, director of leadership development at Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo Clinic. "We can express what we authentically think and feel. We can speak up and share our perspectives without a fear of ridicule or punishment. And we sense that our input makes a difference." 

5. Removing Negativity

It is so easy for the workplace to be filled with negativity. Yet, it's potentially one of the top reasons why employees eventually leave their employers. No matter how great the compensation and benefits, a negative environment will always fail. 

Criticism is important to the brainstorming process. It is also vital to continuous improvement. Findings areas of improvement will always remain a top priority for companies, but complaining and highlighting the negative without attempting to find a solution is not productive. The approach should be to look at ways to improve the situation and contribute more positively to an outcome.

Team leaders can promote this mindset by not showing any negativity themselves. Being positive when coming to work and when there is a problem is a great start. Having the reflex to look for solutions, rather than complain or show anger or frustration, when a problem arises also teaches employees about the entrepreneurial mindset that drives innovation today.

Related Article: Why Voice of the Employee Needs a Little More Trust

6. Realizing the Team's Full Value

No team can feel psychologically safe at work unless the leadership team supports them. In today's workplace, leaders need to remind employees of the value they bring to the organization.

Passing on these sentiments can be difficult, particularly when the workload is heavy. But communicating these sentiments is important because one-third of employees report feeling undervalued, according to Achievers’ 2021 Engagement and Retention report.

To help increase productivity, engagement and retention — and reduce turnover — managers should take time out and express appreciation for every team member, even if it is just a brief end-of-the-day meeting. Creating a psychologically safe and inviting environment is a big part of making employees happier at work.

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