Importance of psychological safety in workplace

Maintaining psychological safety is an important factor for optimizing organizational performance

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If you make a mistake in your team is it held against you? Are members of your team able to bring up problems and tough issues? Do people on your team sometimes reject others for being different? Is it safe to take a risk in your team? Is it difficult to ask other members in your team for help?

These are just a few of the questions used to measure the psychological safety of a team. If any of these questions elicited a negative or stressful response it may be reflective of a less than safe team environment.

Maintaining psychological safety is an important factor for optimizing our organizational performance

When we experience an attack to our psychological safety our brain is triggered into a stress response. This stress response is important to understand in order to expand our awareness of mental wellbeing and its impact on business/companies.

Our brain is designed to see patterns and map these patterns in our mind, which helps us create blueprints that are meant to keep us safe. Our brain’s drive for safety is so important that it dedicates more neural pathways and connections to detect and manage threats than it does for rewards. Therefore, unless you feel safe, it is very difficult to focus or enjoy anything. The brain is an efficient machine that is great at conserving energy, especially in times of stress. When we become stressed our brain dedicates energy to manage the threat (real or perceived) which pulls energy away from areas in our brain responsible for thinking rationally, creativity, decision-making, self-control, and attentional focus. Thus, engaging these areas in times of stress will require more energy and effort, which is taxing on the brain.

So, we can see then how fear is not an effective motivator at work, and the need for psychological safety is necessary for increased learning, creativity, social risk taking and healthy group culture.

What is psychological safety, anyway?

Amy Edmondson, author of The Fearless Organization (2019), defines psychological safety as: “The belief that the work environment is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” She further elaborates that, “…the concept refers to the experience of feeling able to speak up with relevant ideas, questions or concerns.”

Through numerous research studies on organizations, wellbeing and psychological safety a few things are certain:

  • Belonging and social acceptance is a primal drive for people, and when we experience rejection it not only affects areas of our brain that fire signals that look like actual physical pain, but it sends us into the stress response due to real or perceived threat.
  • Psychological safety states that for people to take the social and psychological risks of speaking up they need to feel safe to do so.
  • Achieving psychological safety is not just due to the right combination of personalities, being nice, or something that just happens.
  • Psychological safety is the product of honest and respectful communication, with an allowance of failure, to encourage problem solving.

Psychological safety is something that must be cultivated through leadership

By creating a work environment that holds high performance standards and high psychological safety employees are challenged appropriately while also being encouraged to collaborate, learn from each other, and get complex work completed through candor and openness. While psychological safety helps spur this learning and engagement process, it is held into place with standard seeing which is orchestrated through ongoing inspiration and coaching.

You may be wondering what it may take to create psychological safety.

Tasks leaders and organizations can take to foster psychological safety

Amy Edmonds (2019) outlines the following Leadership tasks:

  • Setting the stage
  • Frame the work: Set expectations about failure, uncertainty and interdependence to clarify the need for voice.
  • Invite Participation
  • Demonstrate situational humility: acknowledge gaps
  • Practice language: ask good questions & model intense listening
  • Set up structures and processes: create focus for input & promote guidelines for discussion
  • Respond Productively
  • Express appreciation: listen, acknowledge and thank
  • Destigmatize failure: Look forward, offer help & discuss and brainstorm next steps
  • Sanction clear violations

Through these tasks leaders are able to achieve shared expectations and meaning, confidence that voice is welcome, and orients their team toward continuous learning. When people feel like they can speak up and take creative risks companies are better able to promote a collaborative and honest team environment that can anticipate and candidly report any problems.

Jolene Feeney, LMHC, CDP, is owner of Mindful Wellness Counseling, PLLC, in Vancouver. She can be reached at Jolene@mindfulwellnesswa.com.

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