How is psychological safety actually applied in the workplace?
Simply put, psychological safety is the creation of an environment where individuals feel free to speak up, to challenge decisions, or to voice concern without fear.
In essence, psychological safety is emotional exposure. Emotions are strong urges that stir up within us – they often arise without warning and can result in strong, visceral sensations. Emotions are essential to the human make up, their function is to communicate to us what supports and what distracts from our survival. Often an emotion can surge, and we are not sure what drives it. Emotions can drive a reactionary behaviour that you may regret.
A lack of self-awareness can hijack us from the present moment and render us emotionally exposed. Being hijacked by your emotions results in a range of unplanned behaviours, from angry outbursts to shutting down, all of which are unhelpful when trying to resolve a problem in the workplace.
Organisations that promote and put in place systems to support emotional exposure create environments where it is okay to be vulnerable and encourage employees to work with their vulnerability. Working with vulnerability paradoxically sparks an inner strength, which enables personal growth.
From a group perspective, creating a psychologically safe environment enables open and honest dialogue. All feedback, both positive and negative, is interpreted as constructive and seen as an opportunity to learn and reaffirm desired actions or address unhelpful behaviours to achieve goals.
Emotions and the workplace don’t often sit comfortably together, so promoting and asking for psychological safety in the workplace is a big ask, however it does build trusting and engaging work cultures.
Out of the five core competencies characterising high performance teams in Google’s Aristotle project, psychological safety ranked number one1. It is no coincidence that mindfulness is deeply anchored in Google’s culture. There is a close link between psychological safety and mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of tuning into the constant stream of thoughts, emotions, and sensations that are arising moment to moment with a kindly curiosity. Mindfulness helps you to be aware of the mental gymnastics being performed in the mind, and this awareness creates a pause for you to respond rather than blindly react to an event.
By cultivating self-awareness, you regain power over your thoughts and emotions. You regain the choice to respond, and this builds an inner confidence to be emotionally exposed. Building emotional capital is an integral component to creating a culture underpinned by psychological safety.
Three Necessary Actions to Implement to Create a Psychologically Safe Culture
1. Modelling Leader Behaviour
Being emotionally exposed goes against the view of the traditional workplace: work is work, leave the emotional self at the door. This model no longer holds. The workplace – due to technology, changing social norms, and the pandemic – has changed radically. With this change, new methods and perspectives are required to lead. Leaders need to be prepared to be vulnerable, to be emotionally tuned into themselves, and be empathetic to the emotional landscape in the work environment. If leaders in the organisation are not prepared to be emotionally exposed, then promoting psychological safety is a non-starter.
2. Promote Curiosity—Ask Questions
Ensure there are a range of communication channels in place for employees to ask questions and challenge decisions. One-to-one meetings between employees and managers is just one channel of communication. Skip-level meetings, townhall meetings, and regular open decisions around key issues pertaining to the business are to be encouraged. Such approaches enable a multitude of perspectives to feed into the decision-making process. Acknowledge, welcome, and encourage employee input into the organisation’s decisions and permit opposing views. Encourage employees to challenge and share their perspective on unfolding business issues. Discussions that may not land comfortably will arise, but it is through the discomfort that innovative ways of doing things are discovered, while keeping employees engaged. It encourages employees to step out of their silos and to deconstruct the groupthink.
Create space in meetings for honest reflections and acknowledge all feedback, positive and negative, as constructive. The ability to deliver feedback in an unbiased way and to create a space where such feedback is shared and addressed encourages blue-sky thinking. Embedding psychological safety in a culture requires a two-way flow of information.
Ensure whistle blowing policies and procedures are actively promoted. Demonstrate when cases do arise the company’s willingness to investigate and address issues. Applaud employees who are brave enough to report wrongdoing in systems, behaviours, and processes.
An organisation should aim to go the extra mile to ensure that a variety of channels are in place to collect employee input across all levels in the organisation. Such an approach promotes employee engagement, builds trust, and fosters a psychologically safe culture.
3. Build Emotional Capital
Before promoting psychological safety, understanding how emotions work and building emotional intelligence skills are essential to enable employees to wisely channel their emotions and to build meaningful relationships with colleagues. In the absence of self and social awareness, it is impossible to build a psychologically safe culture.
To encourage good habits around emotional awareness, build reflective time into conversations. This creates space to engage in meaningful discussion, encourages deep listening, and invites people to tap into the emotional landscapes at play. Don’t underestimate the power of pause and the space for reflection during work discussions.
By building a psychologically safe culture, organisations create environments where staff are encouraged to be creative and innovative, and where errors are confronted instead of covered up. A psychologically safe environment supports a growth mindset, which encourages employees to embrace challenges, builds a culture of trust and ultimately brings out the best in individuals.
Psychological safety is not a quick fix, it takes time to cultivate and root in an organisation’s culture. It requires building the emotional capital of an organisation, and ensuring leaders have the skills to understand the emotional nuances in the work environment. Psychological safety supports employee wellbeing and is good for business.
For further information on building emotional capital in your organisation click here.