Psychological Safety: The Key to Worker Happiness and Team Productivity

Psychological Safety: The Key to Worker Happiness and Team Productivity

There is a common fear among many employees that speaking up or expressing their opinions will backfire on them in the workplace. Learn about psychological safety at work and how you can improve employee wellbeing.

Psychological safety affects many facets of a work environment—especially teams and individual wellbeing. However, many employers or employees might not understand the importance of psychological safety and how that impacts a workplace as a whole.

What is psychological safety?
Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson coined the term years ago:

“Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”

According to one Forbes article by Pavel Krapivin, Edmondson publicly emphasized the issue in 1999, and her latest book talks about how a culture of psychological safety is vital to the successful functioning of organizations in the modern economy.

Edmondson even has a TEDTalk on the topic titled “Building a psychologically safe workplace.” In the talk, she notes one of the best examples of this issue is when employees gather for a meeting, but no one voices their opinion, there is not much discussion, and people simply go along with what their manager or boss said. The whole purpose of a solid team meeting is to bounce ideas off each other, strengthen action plans, and help solve issues and provide support for each other. 

Krapivin also notes that psychological safety is often misconceived just the idea of being nice, and some people dismiss it as something fluffy and unbefitting in our analytical, business-anchored age.  However, that misconception could not be further from reality.

Edmondson notes that psychological safety is more about “creating an environment whereby candid feedback is given, mistakes admitted to, and learning is the foundation of how people work.”

However, in order to build this kind of workplace, a few key elements need to be in place. People are more and more inclined to keep their opinions to themselves for fear of the workplace repercussions—but organizations need to foster the key elements for psychological safety.

Build Trust
Trust—or lack thereof—can be an obvious part of a workplace, or it can be a silent harm, and it’s not always visible. Rice University researched one of the most visible ways trust is built or broken down in the workplace: the way ideas are rejected.

Words have power—and in this context, the way ideas are appraised or rejected really do affect a work environment. The use of language goes a long way towards supporting or dissuading other people from offering up ideas of their own. This kind of language—either encouraging or discouraging—can affect everything from business idea sharing, ideation, or whistleblowing.

Continued Idea Sharing—Or Not
The study found that people were often clearly reluctant to offer a second opinion when their initial suggestion had been rejected in an inappropriate way.

The study took two survey approaches to this topic. First, the study asked employees to consider a time when they had spoken out or expressed an idea to their boss that had been rejected for whatever reason. In addition to providing information about the nature of the idea, they were also asked to talk about the manner of rejection and how it made them feel and if they offered ideas or suggestions again in the future.

The second survey asked recipients to consider an experimental scenario whereby they were a junior intern at a marketing company and were asked to pitch ideas for a marketing campaign to their boss. The participants each received one of four rejection responses to the pitch, all with different language. Some were blunt and to the point, and others had a more sensitive tone with an explanation on why the idea was rejected. Each participant was then given the opportunity to pitch a second idea.

What’s in a Team?
One Impraise article discusses a 2015 study by Google on what makes a great team. The study found that psychological safety—not age, IQ scores, or mistake counts—was a leading factor.  

“Project Aristotle” analyzed data collected over a two-year period and developed a list of the five key dynamics that make great teams successful: psychological safety, dependability, structure and clarity, meaning, and impact.

*Psychological Safety: Team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of one another, and they are not discouraged from sharing ideas.

*Dependability: Team members complete tasks on time while meeting Google’s high bar for excellence.

*Structure & Clarity: Team members have clear roles, plans, and goals.

*Meaning: The team members assign valuable meaning to the work.

*Impact: Team members think their work matters and creates change.

The article also gives tips on how employers, and fellow coworkers, can foster psychological safety in the workplace. After all, if that is the most crucial factor for a successful team, what workplace doesn’t want psychological safety?

Leading by example helps encourage others to work hard, act appropriately, and care for one another. Whether you are an entry-level employee or a higher up, you should ask for feedback, acknowledge your mistakes, be open to different opinions, be approachable, and encourage questions.

Encouraging active listening is an important part of making people feel valued and so they can contribute to the team. To help encourage listening you can leave phones at the door during meetings, show understanding by repeating what was said, ask questions, and actively ask for the opinions of those who do not usually speak during meetings.

Create a safe environment—and this means making sure others can voice their opinions without feeling judged. Create a few ground rules on how employees can interact with one another such as do not interrupt each other, never place blame, and accept ideas without judgment.

Develop an open mindset in order to break free of judgement in the workplace. It’s easy to look at everything through our own lens, but approaching something from a different angle can help bring a new perspective. Encourage teams to share feedback with one another, help teams learn how to respond to input from others, and encourage teams and individuals to see feedback as a way to strengthen their work—not devalue it.

It’s important to remember that safety does not always apply to the physical wellbeing of workers. Safety in the workplace affects everything from someone’s mental health to their productivity in teams to their overall happiness. Building a workplace that values psychological safety is necessary in fostering a holistic and encouraging work environment, and who doesn’t want that?

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