Psychological safety is the core of a successful business, especially considering current events. Employees who don’t feel safe and cared for can’t concentrate, and their hearts just aren’t in their work. On the other hand, when workers are in a culture of psychological safety, they are 50% more productive and the company enhances revenue growth by 5% to 10%. It’s not easy to do, but it makes good business sense.
So how can HR create a culture of psychological safety?
1. Get clear on the definition
Start with making sure that management is clear on the core principles of the idea. In the 1990s, Dr. Amy Edmondson of Harvard University coined the term “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” When business gurus got hold of psychological safety a few decades later, the definition evolved to an easier-to-remember “Freedom to fail,” encouraging teams to “fail fast, fail often, and fail forward.” Or, as the Scrum master crowd popularized it; “Fail fast, learn faster.”
Having the freedom to fail is a deceptively simple concept – saying “you won’t get in trouble” isn’t enough. The culture must meet the team’s needs to feel physically safe, emotionally safe, and a sense of belonging before psychological safety can begin. Understanding psychological safety, and its foundation, is core to its practice.
2. Talk the Talk
In her Out of Office podcast, Dr. Edmonson shared insight on how to effectively build a work culture around it. The Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School and author of the book The Fearless Organization listed three ways that leaders can foster:
- Set the stage. Frame the situation in ways that make it crystal clear that leaders and management genuinely want to hear from people, they honestly welcome ideas and they embrace the bad news, the crazy ideas and tough questions. “They recognize that collectively we are more at risk for not hearing from each other and for not engaging in conversations,” explained Edmonson.
- Perpetually ask good questions. To her the essence of a good question is one a) you don’t know the answer to, and b) focuses on something that matters (a project or a situation) and gives people room to respond. “So, it’s not a yes-no question,” she said. “It’s kind of a ‘What are your thoughts about …’ question.”
- Respond in productive ways. That doesn’t mean you agree with everything or applaud everything. “It does mean showing a basic human sense of appreciation for the effort it takes for people to come forward with their thoughts and observations,” she emphasized.
3. Walk the Walk
Dr. John Maxwell said a leader “… shows the way, and goes the way.” Building a culture of psychological safety means showing it’s OK to be transparent, authentic… and wrong. Walking the walk sends a strong message you trust your team, making it far easier for the team to trust you back. One of the most powerful ways to show that it’s OK to fail is three little words: “I don’t know.”
“I can think of very few things that are more important for leaders to do than admit when they don’t know something,” said Edmondson. “Many leaders are afraid to say ‘I don’t know’ because they’re afraid it’s going to make them look weak. It makes them look strong because it makes them look confident about the things they do know and the expertise they do have which is likely considerable or they wouldn’t be in a leadership role.”
In a world that changes as fast as this one, leaders who are confident enough to admit their gaps gain a business advantage: it means cracks can get filled in faster. The national transition of moving back to the workplace or embracing a hybrid workforce is an excellent case study on how important it is to let employees know you don’t have all the answers.
“We’re boldly going where no one has gone before,” chuckled Edmondson. “And we’re going to make mistakes along the way. But we’re committed, and we’ll pivot and figure things out. So, in a way you’re naming the problem, you’re admitting it’ll be a challenge, and you’re inviting employees to give their input saying specifically at the outset that this is going to be a learning process.”
4. Meet Foundational Needs
As mentioned earlier, psychological safety can only build when other needs are met: physical and emotional safety comes first. In a post-COVID-19 world, this is more complex than paying living wages, preventing lunch thefts, or completing OSHA training. “To reach the highest possible levels of physical safety as we go back to work in the midst of or at the end of the pandemic means nurturing psychological safety,” said Edmondson.
Creating a culture where people feel safe in the face of an ambiguous, lingering threat isn’t impossible – but it does require person-to-person connection. Employees must know their leaders genuinely want their input and are curious about their ideas. An explicit invitation to bring employees to the table is important, and when employees see their own input in the plan, they are more comfortable.
“Change activates the same areas of the brain as threats do, so it reads danger or pain – especially if the change is unwanted and it affects health, home or heart. But if people have control and want the change, the brain sees it as a thrill, not a threat,” said Dr. Kelly Makino, organizational psychologist and Editor-in-Chief of HR Morning. “When employees participate in decisions, are kept informed, and are given a chance to buy in on a plan, it lowers the threat level. The key is to treat them like partners and respect their truth – in turn they will respect yours back. This trust is the foundation for psychological safety. With that achieved, everything gets easier.”