How to create psychological safety at work?

Manouk te Rietmolen
March 23, 2023
min read
Table of Contents
Do you want to know one key element that all high performing teams share? It’s psychological safety. As workplaces become more diverse and remote, it's increasingly important for employees to feel a sense of psychological safety at work. When employees feel psychologically safe, they are more likely to share their ideas, collaborate effectively, and take ownership of their work.

‍In this blog, we'll explore the concept of psychological safety at work, its benefits, and how to encourage it in your workplace for better team performance and employee well-being.  

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety is the belief that one can speak up, take risks, and be vulnerable without fear of negative consequences. When psychological safety is established in the office, employees are confident to express themselves honestly and take risks without fear of judgement. This results in transparency and makes sure that people bring their full and authentic selves to work. 

Why is psychological safety important for companies?

Every person in a team knows something that no one else knows. By creating a psychologically safe workplace, employers build an environment where employees can be their best selves. An environment where they can thrive. This boosts the amount of dialogue and creativity, which can lead to better collaboration and improved productivity.

Overall, striving towards psychological safety in the workplace is essential for creating a positive environment. It requires a commitment to create a culture of trust and respect, where everyone is valued and their contributions are appreciated. With this in place, employees are empowered to speak up and take ownership of their work, leading to better outcomes for both the individual and the organization.

Moreover, psychological safety has been linked to employee well-being. When individuals feel comfortable and supported in the workplace, they are more likely to be satisfied with their jobs and experience less stress. This can lead to lower turnover rates and higher productivity, as employees are more engaged and motivated.

Why is psychological safety important for employees?

When employees are able to speak up without the fear of being judged, they will feel more confident about sharing their opinions, ideas, thoughts, and concerns. This encourages open and frequent communication, helping to build strong relationships with colleagues, managers, and customers. 

In addition, by encouraging psychological safety in the workplace, employers send a powerful message that everyone's unique contributions are highly valued, regardless of their background. 

This promotes diversity and encourages a sense of inclusivity, creating deeper connections between colleagues and the organization as a whole. Everyone feels valued in their contribution and has a sense of belonging. You will only reach the full potential of having people from different backgrounds, if psychological safety has a top priority. 

89% of employees think psychological safety in the workplace is essential. (Mckinsey). 

3 ways to build psychological safety as an individual 

  1. Encourage open communication
    Some people are comfortable talking in larger groups, while others prefer one-on-one conversations. That’s why open questions like “What does everyone think”? Or, “Does anyone disagree?” usually don’t get you the answers that you’re looking for. Especially when you’re dealing with introverted people in your team. What you can do instead is to first ask people to write down their thoughts and then ask to read it out loud. 
  2. Ask clarifying questions
    People use jargon or acronyms way more often than you think. If this happens, ask the person who used it to explain what has been said. You might feel worried about how you”ll be perceived, because maybe you feel that people think you ‘should know that by now’. However, by asking questions, you are demonstrating that it is okay to do so, and you are offering others the chance to do the same.
  3. Suggest two brainstorms: one for good ideas and one for bad ideas
    Take some of the pressure off and allow team members to be adventurous. Let team members come up with the worst suggestions they can think of, as well as some of the best. By doing this, you show that it’s okay to be a bit silly sometimes!

Leaders have an important role when it comes to psychological safety

In many companies, the "highest" person (for example, the CEO) is more secure compared to someone still in the probationary period. This is something that leaders will need to realize. It’s important to try to step into the shoes of a new hire, with a less secure position. Only then, leaders will understand better what their employees need in order to feel safe enough to speak up. 

Leadership principles to build a solid foundation for psychological safety

  • Have zero tolerance on discrimination, harassment and violence
  • Be aware of boundaries (keep reading for an easy & fun exercise) 
  • Take time for personal talks and connect on a personal level
  • Feedback: give and ask for it in a vulnerable way and act on it
  • Be consequent and keep your promises
  • Remember, it takes time for one to trust the other

We can’t stress this enough: lead by example 

  • Admit the mistakes you make, the fears you have and insecurities that come up. Be vulnerable.
  • Make curiosity the norm. Cheer on active listening (no phones and other distractions. Be in the meeting)
  • Create a safe place. Make sure everyone gets airtime. Interrupt a session when you sense that the psychological safety is undermined
  • Encourage an open mindset. Make sure that you include everyone in delivering input. Accept ideas and don’t judge others. 
  • Enhearten everyone in positive feedback. Set feedback rules for giving and receiving. 

3 ways to build psychological safety as a leader 

  1. Respond to failure in a positive way
  2. The way you respond to issues or errors can have a significant influence on the psychological safety of your organization. Show appreciation for an employee’s honesty when they own up to a mistake, and focus on exploring solutions and taking away lessons. This demonstrates that every failure can be used to better the organization and fuel progress. And it makes the employee feel safe. 

  3. Balance activities with communication
    If you do things together but never take the time to discuss your feelings or needs, you won’t connect on a deeper level or make much progress. On the other hand, if you over analyze every interaction and miss out on simply enjoying each other's company during activities, you will end up with the same result. Make sure to create a nice balance here.
  4. Set the stage!
  5. When times get tough, such as in uncertain periods, it can happen that employees adopt a mindset of failure rather than viewing it as a learning opportunity. Leaders can support their teams by zooming out and seeing the bigger picture. 

Organize a meeting and go back to the purpose of the project. Ask questions like: Why are we doing this? How can we support each other? Where do we connect and disconnect during this project? Reframe the situation and aim for support, learning and open conversation. 

Psychological safety at Appical: what do we do?

At Appical, we started with organizing a psychological safety training. Our colleague Meghan, Director of Customer Success & Onboarding, hosted a first session with her team, with the aim to create awareness. She covered topics that are discussed in this blog as well. What does psychological safety mean? Why is it important? But she also dug deeper. She wanted her teammates to ‘feel’ her message.

“Awareness is created not only when you know what it means, but also when you recognize where each person's limits are. And that, of course, varies from person to person.” - Meghan 

That’s why Meghan shared a fictional story with her team members. The events in this story became increasingly "intense" and took place in the workplace. In which a colleague did not dare to indicate her boundaries to a fellow colleague. 

By the time the story continued, it was up to the listeners to stand up when their limit was reached. The result? “You literally saw how boundaries can differ per person”, she explained. Wow!

Other examples of the training involved different questions. The team members were asked if they were ever:

  • In a meeting where not a single question was asked (because people might not dared to ask them)
  • Experienced not getting ‘airtime’, meaning that during meetings always the same people are talking
  • In a meeting where there were no out-of-the-box ideas shared. 

We’re happy to have introduced the topic within the company. We started with creating awareness and Meghan’s training will soon be on the agenda of other teams as well. 

Take the test: is your team psychologically safe?

If you want to improve the feeling of psychological safety at your workplace, it’s good to know where you are standing right now. Although it might be difficult to find out, because (the absence of) psychological safety is hidden in many aspects, these five questions will help you to make a start. 

Ask your team members these 5 questions:

  1. If I make a mistake on my team, it is often held against me.
    Yes or no? Why? Can you share some examples? 
  2. I am able to bring up problems and tough issues.
    Yes or no? Why? Can you share some examples? 
  3. It is safe to speak up on this team.
    Yes or no? Why? Can you share some examples? 
  4. It is difficult to ask my team members for help.
    Yes or no? Why? Can you share some examples? 
  5. My unique skills and talents are valued and utilized in this team.
    Yes or no? Why? Can you share some examples? 

You can choose to do this together with the team, but it might be helpful to ask beforehand what each team member prefers. Maybe some people will feel more comfortable discussing this 1-1 (implementing a learning from this blog: check!).

After discussing these questions, we encourage you to eventually dig deeper. Evaluate the answers and create a safe space for an open discussion about this topic. Take some time for self-reflection: How can you improve here as a company, as a leader, or as an individual?

Inspired by: Appical (Meghan Parinussa), Lizz Fosslien & Mollie West Duffie, Tandem HR & Evelina Padervinskaite (LinkedIn).

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