Why a culture of psychological safety starts at the top

Kate shares her tips to building a culture of psychological safety.

According to a Google study called ‘Project Aristotle’ the secret behind high-performing teams is psychological safety. This was a term coined by Harvard Business School Professor, Amy Edmondson. Amy Defines psychological safety as ‘a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes’.

There have been lots of reports which suggest that leaders who create psychologically safe work environments are more likely to retain top performers and be more innovative. Like all successful cultural initiatives, it must start with the leaders at the top so that others can follow.

Here are my top 5 tips to build psychological safety in the workplace:

  1. Listen and be fully present

If your employees feel that you don’t pay attention when they speak or that you don’t value their thoughts and opinions, they’ll be less likely to open up to you. Demonstrate your engagement by being present during meetings – switch on your video camera, ignore emails and your phone. Be fully with them in the room – whether that is virtual or actual.

If something doesn’t go to plan, it can be easy to jump into the habit of looking for someone to blame. The blame game doesn’t help people feel safe to speak up the next time they see something awry or do something wrong. Instead of “What happened and why?” ask “How can we make sure this goes better next time? Notice the focus on the collaborative language: How can we make sure this goes smoothly next time? We statements turn the responsibility into a group effort, rather than singling out an individual for a mistake.

There’s nothing more of a psychological safety killer than people bad-mouthing one another. When leaders allow people air-time to speak disparagingly of others, it can become contagious. Employees will think that either they’re supposed to talk bad about others, or that others are probably talking about them. If you have a team member who speaks negatively about peers, talk to them about it. Let them know that you work together as a team and bad-mouthing will not be tolerated. 

When making decisions about the business, take time to engage with employees and ask for their input/thoughts/ideas. This will help them to feel included in the decision-making process and may also lead you to make better decisions as often the most innovative ideas are hiding inside the mind of someone you least expect! As a leader, letting people know you value and trust their opinion is one of the most powerful things you can do to encourage psychological safety. Make it ok to speak up. No idea is a bad one! Once a decision is made, communicate the reasoning behind it and let people know how their feedback played a part. Even if your employees don’t agree, they’ll appreciate the honesty and transparency behind how the decision was made.

If you are the ‘boss’ or a senor leader in a business, you wield a lot of power whether you like it or not! Unless you lead by example by showing vulnerability and saying when you got something wrong, and encourage challenge and debate for your ideas, you can quickly find yourself surrounded by ‘yes people’. Whilst that might feel comfy, it is not a great place to be if you want to build a winning team and business. Invite your team to challenge your perspective and push back. When employees feel psychologically safe, they feel empowered to give feedback—up, down, and across. Healthy conflict leads to better decisions and greater accountability—making it a win all around.

Not sure if your employees feel psychologically safe? Why not ask them to encourage a conversation about it? See what their ideas are to improve the way you do things and take steps to improve the culture for the better.

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