Do you feel enthusiastic and comfortable speaking up and taking risks at work? If so, you’re likely perceiving psychological safety.
At its core, psychological safety refers to a shared belief that expressing your ideas and concerns, making mistakes, and bringing your authentic self to work won’t be met with punishment, rejection, or disdain.
The concept was coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson in 1999 and popularized by Google in 2015.
If the notion of psychological safety sounds like something you need to develop yourself, it’s not quite so.
Psych safety isn’t about personal confidence or assertiveness. Rather, creating psychological safety at work is a collective effort that must be fueled and modeled by all, particularly leadership.
One of the main signs that you’re not feeling psychologically safe in your workplace is if you often bite your tongue during meetings despite having something to say.
Katherine Kirkinis, PhD, a specialist in career counseling and career assessment in New York City, explains that psychological safety leads you to “feel safe enough to bring up problems or tough issues, to share a new idea, to ask for help, and celebrate diversity.”
In this context, workplace silence isn’t about your personality or how outspoken or quiet you tend to be in general.
“When employees fear rejection or that their thoughts and ideas aren’t valued, they’ll keep their mouths shut,” Kirkinis says.
Many possible team dynamics may lead you to feel this way, but here are 17 potential signs of low psychological safety:
- You’re never sure if what you have to say will be well received.
- Most people on your team are more likely to hold up than speak up during important conversations.
- Team members progressively become quieter and share fewer ideas as time passes.
- Team morale is persistently low.
- Turnover is persistently high.
- Feedback received from direct communication is different from the one gathered through anonymous polling.
- Competition trumps cooperation among team members.
- Team members rarely, if ever, challenge the status quo.
- Leaders typically dominate the conversation during meetings and feedback sessions.
- Team members, including leaders, rarely, if ever, admit weaknesses or mistakes.
- You feel overwhelmed by your workload yet don’t feel comfortable asking for adjustments or support.
- Feedback isn’t periodically shared or requested.
- Concerns, requests for help, ideas, or disappointment are listened to, but nothing’s done.
- Not all team members are included in important conversations, so the gap is filled with assumptions.
- You don’t feel your manager has your back, and you don’t know where you stand with them.
- Conversations mainly focus on the positives and rarely on growth opportunities or lessons learned.
- Not everyone feels represented in the senior leadership.
“The worst part about working in a psychologically unsafe workplace is that great ideas never get shared,” says Kirkinis.
What psychological safety is not
Creating a psychologically safe climate at work means you allow others to be themselves and actively participate in conversations and decision making processes. But this doesn’t mean psychological safety is:
- guaranteed applause to everything people have to say at work
- saying what you think the other person wants to hear
- lack of accountability
- tolerance to toxic behaviors
- praising without any reason or purpose
- dialing back performance standards
- promoting the “comfort zone”
- becoming friends with your direct reports or colleagues
The benefits of working in a psychologically safe climate are both personal and organizational.
Research from 2020 shows that when employees perceive psychological safety in the workplace, they tend to:
- speak up more often and openly
- share their views and ideas with their managers
- feed their opinions to influence decision making in their teams
In turn, feeling and acting this way increases work engagement.
Work engagement refers to a state of mind that makes you feel more energetic, committed, and absorbed by your work. According to a 2017 Gallup survey, only 33% of U.S. employees are engaged at work.
Work engagement, then, can be an indirect outcome of psychological safety. And work engagement often means lower turnovers and higher productivity.
“No one wants to work in an environment where they don’t feel safe taking risks or being different,” says Kirkinis.
Learning is another benefit of psychological safety.
When people ask questions, share mistakes, and have the chance to listen to different perspectives, they’re more likely to learn the lessons. This translates into company innovation, growth, and personal development.
Other benefits of psychological safety include:
- increased problem-solving
- inclusive practices
- higher productivity
- better collective well-being
- lower chance of risky mistakes
- stronger sense of belonging
- more inclusive and diverse cultures
The role leadership has in developing psychological safety at work is essential.
Organizational support is directly linked to employees’ well-being and productivity.
Janette Rodriguez, PsyD, a licensed psychologist in Davie, Florida, says it’s particularly important that leaders:
- walk the talk and model attitudes and behaviors they’d like to see in others
- explicitly encourage and make sure employees:
- set clear boundaries
- challenge the status quo
- engage in accountability and reflect on mistakes
- amplify diverse voices
- self-promote and comfortably take credit for contributions and the impact they have on their team
“Combining modeling with explicit statements supporting psychological safety can be incredibly powerful,” says Rodriguez.
Providing space and voice to everyone on the team can also help improve psychological safety. Specifically, consider openly acknowledging people’s contributions to the team.
“Be specific about who did what and their impact,” advises Rodriguez. “Express appreciation for whatever talent or skill the person used to create the positive result.”
Consider these other tips to strengthen psychological safety in your teams:
- Request feedback as often as possible, particularly if you’re in the top leadership.
- Include your team in decision making processes.
- Avoid getting defensive or resentful when you get feedback.
- Actively listen to all ideas and concerns and respond to everyone in the same appreciative manner.
- Admit your own mistakes openly and encourage learning from them.
- Avoid dominating the conversation (particularly if you encourage everyone to participate).
- Encourage others to challenge you.
- Ask others to help you work on your growth opportunities and development areas.
- Check on team members, even from other teams.
- Ask people how you can help them develop and do their best at work.
- Become a mentor or a sponsor for underrepresented employees, even from other teams.
- Whenever possible, include your entire team in important conversations.
- Avoid sharing “secrets” with one or a few team members, including chatting about other employees.
- Regularly check your team’s workloads to ensure top performers aren’t “awarded” with more work and other team members are given easier tasks.
“Your team will know you’re open to hearing about mishaps, that it’s OK to point them out or ask questions, and that you’re willing to apologize and do better,” says Rodriguez. “It also models ways for them to do the same.”
When requesting feedback, Rodriguez says using “what” instead of “if” may work better. “Assume there’s feedback to be given,” she adds.
Rodriguez also recommends using a multimethod approach.
“Incorporate anonymous but quick questionnaires, ” she recommends. “In a virtual environment, you can leverage tools such as polls and the hand-raise button.”
Kirkinis says acknowledgment is also key, particularly in virtual or hybrid work environments.
“If a team member says something but then gets cut off by a frozen screen, or talked over by someone else, make sure that the group returns to them,” she says.
Acting in the same way with every direct report may help them feel safe and that they can trust you.
Encouraging everyone to openly acknowledge each other in the team, known as social recognition, also has a positive impact.
Social recognition is essential to psychological safety and business success. It lets everyone know they’re noticed and valued, boosts productivity, and strengthens work relationships.
Building psychological safety is everyone’s task. Kirkinis recommends considering these three tips to contribute to a psychologically safe and inclusive culture:
- Celebrate diversity, especially of thought: “If someone has a new, wild idea that seems impossible, don’t reject it flat out.” Try to offer positive feedback sandwiching your concern. “Wow, what a creative idea! One concern is that it might be expensive, but I’m excited about building off of this.”
- Promote asking for and receiving help: “From small tasks to larger partnerships. It helps if this is modeled by senior-level members first.”
- Encourage a culture of building each other up: “Give credit where it’s due. If you build on someone else’s idea, mention them.”
Also, try to avoid these behaviors that may decrease psychological safety on your team:
- Gossiping and badmouthing others. If something needs to be reported, it’s a good idea to do so. But try to avoid providing space for colleagues or direct reports to repeatedly complain about people without giving everyone the chance to participate in the conversation. It’s also important to identify when team members may deliberately act to undermine other people’s efforts.
- Forming alliances. Low psychological safety may lead some people to informally request support from one or a few colleagues to avoid feeling “lonely” during team conversations. But this may be counteractive as other team members can feel left out and not supported. Psychological safety is a team culture, so it must include everyone.
- Isolating others. It’s natural to find some people may be more compatible or relatable, but try to avoid favoring those you feel closer to over the rest of the team.
In sum, psychological safety is believing you’re safe and included on your team. What can you do regularly to help others in your team feel this way?