Workplace Wellbeing

Unlocking Innovation and Growth Through Psychological Safety in the Workplace

Psychological safety is an often overlooked yet crucial aspect of employee well-being in the workplace. Learn how to establish and cultivate a psychologically safe workplace, fostering trust, engagement, and long-term retention.

Written by
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Dr. Amy Marschall
Spring Health Provider
Clinically reviewed by
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    When discussing safety in the workplace, we often focus on physical well-being. Of course, physical safety is essential to prevent injury and even death. However, we must recognize the significance of psychological safety, which is equally important yet frequently overlooked.

    While a psychologically unsafe environment may not necessitate immediate emergency room trips, it can profoundly affect employees. Feeling unsafe can hinder performance, impede their willingness to bring innovative ideas to management, and prevent effective collaboration between colleagues. The stress of working in an environment where individuals don’t feel safe can eventually lead to high turnover rates and burnout.

    Everyone deserves to feel safe at work, both physically and psychologically. Read on to learn how to establish and foster a psychologically safe workplace for your employees.

    What is psychological safety and what does it look like in the workplace?

    The Harvard Business Review defines psychological safety as the collective belief held by team members that it is acceptable to take risks, express ideas and concerns, ask questions, and admit mistakes without facing repercussions.

    In other words, do your employees feel comfortable expressing their thoughts, needs, and weaknesses without fearing retaliation? While many managers might confidently answer “yes” to this question, it’s essential to consider whether your employees share the same sentiment. You may claim an “open door policy” and encourage your employees to approach you with ideas, questions, or mistakes, but how frequently does this occur?

    Psychologically unsafe workplaces don’t have a specific set of conditions. Generally, they refer to situations where employees fear backlash or consequences. For instance, if management enacts harsh penalties for mistakes, it becomes unsafe for employees to admit errors. Similarly, many will refrain from sharing their ideas if colleagues ridicule individuals when they offer suggestions.

    It might be time to critically examine your workplace culture and implement changes that increase a sense of psychological safety.

    What are the benefits of psychological safety?

    A psychologically safe workplace allows employees to do their best work and promotes positive mental well-being. When workers feel psychologically safe, they thrive and reach their full potential. The benefits of psychologically safety can manifest in various impactful ways.

    Taking appropriate risks

    Psychological safety empowers employees to take calculated risks and reap the rewards that come with them. When individuals feel psychologically safe in the workplace, they are more likely to embrace and pursue opportunities involving some risk. This is because they feel supported and confident in handling any potential consequences. 

    Sharing ideas

    In a business, new ideas have the potential to yield remarkable rewards. However, in a psychologically unsafe environment, employees may hesitate to share ideas or challenge the status quo, even when such changes could prove highly profitable. 

    By fostering psychologically safety, you create an environment where employees feel encouraged and supported to express their innovative ideas without fear of judgment or negative consequences. 

    Admitting mistakes

    Everyone makes mistakes. The good news is that, in most cases, we can fix errors, especially when we become aware of them immediately. When employees feel psychologically safe, they feel empowered to communicate and inform management when errors occur openly. This cultivates a culture where mistakes become opportunities for growth and improvement rather than triggers for blame or punishment. 

    Expressing concerns

    Even management can make mistakes. One way to mitigate the impact of these mistakes on your business is by fostering an environment where employees feel comfortable expressing their concerns about decisions. 

    Similarly, when employees encounter interpersonal conflicts, providing them with the opportunity to bring their concerns to human resources enables problems to be addressed before they escalate further.

    Retaining employees

    When employees experience psychological safety, the impact extends beyond their performance—it influences their commitment and longevity in the organization. A healthy workplace fosters a sense of well-being and contentment, resulting in higher employee retention rates.

    When employees feel happy and secure in their work environment, they are more likely to remain dedicated and loyal to the company. Furthermore, this sustained commitment translates into improved work performance.  

    What contributes to psychological safety in the workplace?

    Psychological safety in the workplace is an integral part of the overall organizational culture. Many factors contribute to whether employees feel a sense of safety in their work environment.

    • Trust: Is management trustworthy, and do employees believe they can approach leadership with questions, ideas, problems, and concerns without fear of negative repercussions?
    • Respect: Do employees feel respected by management? Are their voices valued, and are their opinions considered when making decisions?
    • Support: Does management provide emotional support to employees, acknowledging their well-being and providing assistance when needed?
    • Listening: How does the company solicit feedback from employees? When feedback is provided, is it considered, and are tangible actions taken in response? Do employees witness meaningful changes based on their input?
    • Receiving feedback: How does management receive criticism or feedback from employees? Is it welcomed and embraced as an opportunity for growth or improvement? How do managers respond to employee concerns or suggestions? 

    Consider the workplace from your employees’ perspectives. Put yourself in their shoes and consider what elements are necessary for them to feel psychologically safe. 

    As a leader, use your position to proactively provide that sense of safety by building trust, demonstrating respect, offering support, actively listening, and embracing opportunities for growth and improvement. By prioritizing and implementing these measures, you can create a workplace environment that fosters psychological safety and empowers employees to thrive.

    Barriers to psychological safety

    Creating psychological safety in the workplace may sound straightforward, but various real-world barriers can prevent effective implementation. It’s not enough to claim a desire for psychological safety if tangible actions aren’t taken to cultivate such an environment. Common barriers that impede psychological safety include:

    • Defensiveness in leadership: While criticism can be challenging, leaders must respond with openness and receptiveness. If leadership becomes defensive or hostile in response to feedback, employees may hesitate to offer their insights.
    • Rigid expectations: Consider the rules around behavior and dress in the workplace. Are these requirements essential for productivity or arbitrary? Organizations can make employees feel more psychologically safe and valued by demonstrating flexibility wherever possible.
    • Hostility: If employees perceive leadership as angry, retaliatory, or hostile, it erodes psychological safety. A respectful and supportive leadership approach is essential in fostering an environment where employees feel safe to express themselves.
    • Inconsistency: When expectations change in unpredictable ways, it creates instability and uncertainty among employees. Similarly, if employers are inconsistent in providing feedback or recognition, it becomes challenging for employees to perform at their best.
    • Favoritism: When certain employees are perceived as “favorites,” those who don’t feel included in this group may experience a lack of psychological safety. Leaders must ensure fairness and equity to foster an environment where all employees feel valued and respected.

    Overcoming these barriers requires a proactive and intentional approach from leadership. Organizations can dismantle barriers and cultivate a workplace environment that embraces psychological safety by addressing defensiveness, promoting flexibility, demonstrating respect, ensuring consistency, and avoiding favoritism.

    How can I make my workplace psychologically safe?

    When your workplace lacks psychological safety or falls short of its potential, effecting change and cultivating a culture of safety may seem daunting and never-ending. However, the following six steps can help transform your organization into a psychologically safe environment.

    Teach leadership to accept feedback

    As highlighted earlier, employees must feel secure when providing feedback and constructive criticism. Leaders must be mindful of their emotional reactions to feedback and handle it appropriately. It’s equally important for leaders to actively incorporate that feedback in tangible ways, demonstrating to employees that their voices are valued and respected.

    Be aware of power dynamics

    It’s important to recognize that while employees and managers can build positive relationships, it’s essential to maintain clear boundaries between work and personal life. Unfortunately, some managers may have unrealistic expectations, expecting their employees to fulfill the role of friends. This creates added pressure for employees to navigate their work responsibilities and the demands of maintaining friendships.

    Employers who acknowledge the inherent power dynamic between themselves and their employees play a vital role in fostering a safe and supportive work environment. 

    Frame mistakes as learning experiences

    Taking risks can lead to both rewards and mistakes. To create space for opportunities, employees need to feel comfortable making mistakes. They must also be able to acknowledge mistakes to correct them. 

    Employees who fear punishment for mistakes may avoid taking chances or conceal errors, allowing them to escalate before being addressed. Demonstrating to your employees that you view mistakes as valuable learning experiences creates a sense of safety and encourages their full engagement in the workplace.

    Accommodate employee needs

    Despite the guarantees of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for reasonable accommodations, many organizations still hinder access to these accommodations. However, these workplace accommodations are essential in making disabled employees feel valued and safe while enabling them to excel in their work.

    By prioritizing and facilitating reasonable accommodations, organizations create an inclusive environment that supports the diverse needs of their workforce and enhances overall productivity and success. 

    Be clear with communication and expectations

    Psychological safety requires employees to understand their needs and expectations clearly. To cultivate this, being upfront and transparent about expectations and consistently setting clear performance, conduct, and productivity standards is crucial. Implement accommodations and employee feedback when appropriate, but communicate clearly and specifically.

    Offer specific, actionable feedback

    Providing constructive feedback to employees can be challenging, as it may trigger defensiveness. Employees, like those in leadership roles, can experience strong emotions when receiving criticism. It’s beneficial to offer a balanced approach by providing positive feedback and areas for improvement. Furthermore, offering specific examples and actionable steps for improvement can guide employees toward enhancing their performance. 

    Psychological safety is essential for a healthy workplace culture. It can be difficult to know what you need to do or where to start to foster this environment for your workers. These recommendations can assist you in promoting psychological safety for all employees and open the door for specific feedback from workers to increase the sense of safety within your organization.

    Learn how initiatives driven by organizational psychology can improve workplace culture and employee satisfaction.   

    About the Author
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    Dr. Amy Marschall
    Spring Health Provider

    Dr. Amy Marschall is a clinical psychologist licensed in South Dakota, Montana, New York, North Dakota, and Florida. She got her doctorate from the University of Hartford in 2015 and completed her internship at the Psychology Training Consortium, Central Region. She has a full-time clinical private practice, Resiliency Mental Health, where she provides therapy and psychological assessments. She is also a speaker, educator, and author.

    About the clinical reviewer
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