What Psychological Safety is Not (And How to Create It in Your Workplace)

2023-10-27T11:06:29-07:00 October 27th, 2023|Tags: , , , |

On a recent LeaderImpact Podcast episode, guest Keri Schwebius joined us to discuss ‘psychological safety’ in the workplace, a term popularized by author and Harvard professor Amy C. Edmondson. It is defined as ‘a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.

Keri shared an example at a previous workplace where psychological safety was lacking. On an annual employee survey, she and her team scored lower on the results than in other years. Instead of asking “What are you guys challenged with?” or “What is getting in your way?”, the VP in her company tried to figure out who on her team was to blame for the low score and reprimanded Keri. In subsequent years, instead of answering the survey honestly, Keri and her team would just score each question high to avoid being reprimanded again.

So how can a leader foster a psychologically safe environment where your team feels free to speak up if they need to? Where they feel they can be completely honest and point out what is going wrong and what could be done better and be their genuine, authentic selves at work? It might be helpful to look at what psychological safety is not.

It’s not just about being nice.
Trying to be nice might make us hesitant to give anybody constructive feedback. Or we’re afraid to speak up against somebody’s idea because we don’t want to hurt their feelings.

It’s not the same as trust.
While it involves trust, trust is usually between two people, I trust you, you trust me. But psychological safety is a bit broader. It’s the whole group feeling that safety.

It’s not about lowering standards.
Just because we want people to be their authentic selves does not mean it’s a free-for-all, just show up how you are and do whatever you do. There still has to be accountability, but you can allow people to speak up more freely.

It might seem daunting to try and create a psychologically safe workplace, but it’s important for leaders to set the stage and get their teams’ participation. Keri outlines a three-step process to get started.

Setting the stage
It’s about setting the expectation, and being very clear about it because people won’t do something if they don’t know that they’re expected to do it. What happens when mistakes happen? How do we deal with them? Well, we learn from them, and we do better. We want to create psychological safety. Reprimanding somebody for speaking up or making fun of somebody who says something silly, those kinds of behaviours are not accepted. So what are the expectations? Be very clear about them, not just once, but all the time.

Inviting participation
The problem with an open-door policy is that getting through that door in and of itself can be intimidating. So we have to walk out of that office, get past that door, and talk to people, invite their perspectives. In meetings, make sure you’re taking the time to ask that quiet person, What’s your perspective? What are you thinking here? Another good question to ask is, What am I missing? Or does anybody see this a different way? You’re inviting that feedback, that input.

Responding productively
This is about reinforcing those behaviours that you’re looking for. When somebody does speak up, thank them for their input, their valuable perspective. When somebody makes a mistake, what do you do? Do you berate them, or do you say, Okay, that didn’t go so well. What did we learn from that? Where do we go from here?

Creating psychological safety in a work environment lets your team try new things and be innovative, to truly thrive. This in turn will benefit you, your team and your organization as a whole.

Listen to LeaderImpact Podcast Ep. 37 with Keri Schwebius or click here to watch.