How to Create Psychological Safety and Resilience in the WorkplaceSep 15, 2022
Why Psychological Safety?
Psychological safety and resilience in the workplace promote a culture of ongoing learning, adaptability, and innovation in an ever-changing business environment. In current conditions – with innovative companies disrupting marketplaces at a dizzying rate and social media accelerating the spread of breaking news – you need people to speak up.
But psychological safety isn’t a magic bullet. It’s not a specific new tool to be quickly implemented. The results, or return on investment (ROI), can be hard to measure, with timelines differing dramatically from immediate, short-term effects to gradual long-term change.
Despite this, promoting Psychological safety and resilience in the workplace provides a significant strategic advantage to companies. Psychological safety underpins the keystone attributes that successful businesses strive for – resilience, innovation, teamwork, creativity, engagement, and more. These attributes occur faster and more often when your workplace is psychologically safe. Rather than embracing ‘fear, uncertainty, and doubt’ (FUD), it’s time to embrace psychological safety.
What is Psychological Safety?
Psychological safety is the shared understanding that it is okay and encouraged to take interpersonal risks at work. It describes a team climate characterized by mutual respect, interpersonal trust, and an environment where people are comfortable being themselves and speaking up. In this environment, people are comfortable engaging in learning activities such as asking questions, admitting errors, seeking feedback, trying something new, or voicing work-related dissent without fearing retaliation or negativity.
Psychological safety is a critical component of a high-performing team, as research from Google suggests. The tech giant’s two-year study found that specific, precise dynamics were necessary to create a successful team – dependability, meaning, structure and clarity, impact, and psychological safety. Although the research indicated that all five were important for high-performing teams, psychological safety was the core attribute that made such teams work.
The psychological safety model’s proposition is quite simple – teams that know they will not be judged for actively participating are more likely to do so better and more often. Whether that participation takes the form of seeking help and asking critical questions, it’s clear that creating an environment where people are comfortable enough to take risks is essential to fostering innovation.
Harvard Business School researcher, Professor Amy Edmondson, is one of the most prominent researchers in this field. She spent a decade studying how people react and interact in ‘volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous” (VUCA) on-the-job situations and other interpersonal contexts. Out of this work, she co-founded the Fearless Organization and created a robust assessment to measure teams’ and organizations’ psychological safety.
Edmondson proves that teams can succeed in a continuously changing workplace by creating an environment where feedback and critical thought are welcome, not silenced or ridiculed. While she wasn’t looking at the specific challenges facing workers right now – remote teamwork, economic diversity, and changing health and safety requirements (to name a few) – her research can equip leaders with safety models that promote mutual respect through candor and openness, setting high standards, and inspiring team members to reach them.
Organizations can create high-performance, curious, talented, and psychologically safe teams by investing in employee development and modeling curiosity. These results are more critical in today’s changing conditions than ever before an organization’s bottom line. Companies need to create a culture of trust, acceptance, adaptability, and continuous learning; so that team members feel comfortable speaking up and speaking out. In addition to promoting innovation, creativity, and taking chances, improving psychological safety reduces the risk of headline-making mistakes because teams that communicate well are dramatically more likely to avoid adverse outcomes.
Psychological Safety: From Principles to Action
Before you start your mission to improve your workplace’s psychological safety, it is essential to measure your teams’ psychological safety. The assessment includes asking questions with options ranging from “if you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you” to “it is safe to take a risk on this team.”
Keep in mind that the purpose of measuring is not to prove that your workplace is psychologically safe but to identify areas of strength and other areas that need to be worked on. Trying to establish your workplace as safe instead of actively looking to improve may prevent your employees from genuinely speaking their minds. They may suspect that the more honest individuals with negative feedback may be targeted for retaliation.
Once teams understand where they rank on the psychological safety scale against these markers, it’s essential to focus on the best interventions to improve – from workshops to group coaching – not just the results. Here are three measures you can begin to implement now.
First, be very clear about the values of the organization. It’s not enough to have a mission, vision, and values – you need to communicate them effectively throughout each layer of the organization and work together to understand them, evaluate and improve them when needed. And most importantly, live them every day.
Second, provide managers with the training and support they need to create high-performing teams, including psychological safety, leadership, and emotional intelligence.
Third, give your employees the tools they need to be successful, including ways to offer feedback, identify concerns, and report incidents. Make it clear that employees will never be fired or reprimanded for standing by company policies. If they feel this has happened, ensure they have a well-defined way to report that concern (and have it investigated and responded to promptly). Also, make it clear to employees that racism will never be tolerated, even if the company loses a loyal customer.
Fourth, adopt a collaborative approach to identifying and resolving challenges or problems rather than blame. Instead of asking, “what happened and who is responsible?” ask, “how best can we make the process smoother?” or “what’s the best route to move on from here?”
Fifth, promote an atmosphere of engagement and understanding. Actively listen when your team members come to you with ideas, problems, or feedback. Showing you are keenly interested in hearing them reinforces their feeling of being engaged. To promote understanding in the workplace, you should aim to do the opposite of the golden rule. Instead of doing to others as you would to yourself, do to others as they would to themselves. Take the time to learn how your team members prefer to communicate or work, and then deal with them in this manner.
Companies that understand the importance of psychological safety and build a corporate culture based on open communication, trust, and feedback, perform better than their peers. They also minimize the risk of making the wrong headlines (from honest mistakes) by empowering individuals to speak up and speak out. Giving frontline workers the tools to identify and report issues before they become failures protects worker safety and encourages good business outcomes.
Psychological safety and resilience in the workplace model also promote a culture of ongoing learning, which is more important than ever in our constantly evolving workplaces. Leaders and team members who develop the tools to adapt and change, meet challenges head-on, and promote innovation are more flexible and adaptable. The psychological safety model encourages everything successful businesses strive for – innovation, teamwork, creativity, employee engagement, diversity, and long-term success.
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