When it comes to fostering strong company culture, one HR buzzword pops up again and again: psychological safety.
According to researcher Amy Edmondson, psychological describes people’s perceptions of the consequences of taking risks in particular settings. Let’s take a minute to zoom in on that keyword here: perceptions.
In other words, if you have workplace safeguards in place — say, an anti-retaliation policy — but your employees don’t actually perceive themselves as safe from retaliation when they report misconduct, you may have a “safe” workplace — but not a psychologically safe one.
So how can psychological safety function in the workplace, and what can it do for your organization? To help answer these questions, we’ve identified six ways in which psychological safety is impacting your company culture. We also have tips to transform your organization into a space of safety for everyone. Enough chat, let’s dive in!
The key to psychological safety is the sense that people feel comfortable being and expressing themselves in the workplace. By necessity, it’s a space where people feel safe taking risks and stretching themselves — a company culture in which employees aren’t afraid of being punished for failure.
How does this manifest in regards to performance? For one thing, it’s a good idea to examine your key performance indicators and other performance metrics. Do they offer room for experimentation, or are they largely dependent on success and quantified deliverables? If pay and bonuses are contingent on hitting specific metrics, you may be unconsciously encouraging employees to think small, even if your intention is anything but.
Work to ensure your performance structure allows for — and encourages! — innovation, thinking outside the box, and, yes, accepting the occasional hiccups that come with it. When your employees feel psychologically safe dreaming big, they’ll do huge things for you.
2. Culture of open dialogue
We’ll ask you a question and ask for your gut answer: Does open dialogue make for a stronger workplace?
Chances are (we hope!) you answered yes, and hopefully without thinking about it. When members of your team feel safe being vulnerable enough to ask questions providing clarity, seek help by admitting they feel stuck, or spark new ideas by challenging the status quo, you’re not just providing them more agency and ownership — you’re opening up your organization to productive, incredible growth.
Look at how your company’s meetings are structured, as well as what modes of feedback you regularly employ. If they’re not in place already, work to implement 360 feedback and regular check-ins — these help create an air of inspiring openness that drives high performance.
3. Rewards and recognition
Want to give your organization a real boost on the psychological safety front? Think not just about how your team leaders give feedback, but also when they give feedback to their employees.
Traditionally, and perhaps instinctively, even great managers tend to let the good things ride. If someone’s doing an amazing job at work, why get in their way? we think. It’s an attitude many of us forget to check — but the consequence is, when we don’t give feedback for impressive behavior, the only times we are giving feedback are when there’s an issue to be corrected.
This actually has a huge impact on your organizational sense of psychological safety. When feedback only comes in the form of correction, employees can start to dread receiving it. They can even go out of their way to avoid making the sorts of big, splashy moves that attract attention.
To create a psychologically secure atmosphere, make sure feedback isn’t seen as the enemy: Call out behavior that’s admirable by personal or company standards with public rewards and recognition, and make it a regular feature in your organization. When a managerial hand on the shoulder feels like a pat on the back, you’ve created a culture of psychological safety where employee engagement is its own reward.
4. Collaboration and conflict management
Healthy companies are ones where inter-team and interdepartmental collaboration is as second nature as a heartbeat, pumping new ideas and opportunities throughout the organization. To achieve this collaborative flow, take a step back and consider collaboration’s opposite: conflict, and how your organization handles it.
What systems do you have in place to handle conflict at the team level, as well as conflicts between employees and managers, cross-departmental heads, and so on? When people are able to engage in healthy disagreements and arrive at a unified outcome, conflict becomes another mode of collaboration: a growth opportunity rather than a stopping block.
Think of one example of conflict resolution you’ve witnessed at your company that you really admired and make that your paradigm. What worked well in this situation, and how can you extend it to other conflicts? Most importantly, what can you do, on both the policy and cultural levels, to implement these changes? The answer varies organization-to-organization, but a psychologically safe space is an inarguable net gain for all.
5. Change management
Let’s take a minute to think about change management. There’s no need for this to be a pain point. When we’re in a psychologically safe environment where we feel comfortable asking questions and trust that the answer we receive is truthful, change management can be an opportunity to demonstrate that leadership is making productive, smart choices that are for the greater good of the organization.
For your own company, review: Do your employees believe that changes in the business are being made for the greater good, and is there sufficient transparency around change? Or is it possible your co-workers believe changes are based on politics or favoritism?
Check the vibe with an anonymous flash poll. If you don’t love the answers you receive, think about what you can do build psychological safety in your workplace. Open Q&A sessions, feedback-friendly town hall meetings, and anonymous feedback opportunities — particularly if employees see you actually implement the changes they suggest — are great places to start.
Employee feedback can be one of the most sensitive areas of a workplace’s psychology — and one of the most powerful. By providing regular, multidirectional feedback, managers and organizational leaders can build interpersonal trust and motivate effective teams.
To make feedback an area that promotes psychological safety, make sure managers give feedback with a growth mindset. Meaning, that they see their employees as human beings with the ability to gain new skills and flourish. Instead of seeing their talent or skill as a static trait.
This allows for feedback to be a growth opportunity for employees, especially when the manager makes it clear that they believe the employee can improve and that they will help them get there.
In order for feedback to genuinely contribute to a culture of psychological safety, be sure to incorporate bottom-up or 360 feedback as well as top-down. When employees feel that they have a valued say in their relationship with their manager, it increases their sense of engagement and ownership.
Most importantly, they must feel they can give constructive feedback to managers and higher leadership. That is, without being punished for speaking up — and managers must take ownership of their own fallibility. Work with management and employees to ensure this attitude is the cultural norm at work, and reap the rewards.
Ready to build a more psychologically safe workplace for your employees?
Kazoo’s all-in-one Employee Experience Platform and performance management tools make it easy to implement feedback between managers and employees, both ways, to support a culture of feedback and communication.
Our social recognition feed also gives team members visibility by sharing their good work with the entire company. This ensures that no piece of hard work or contribution goes unnoticed.