Psychological Safety at Work and Its Impact on the Performance of Your Teams

An empowered employee feels psychologically safe in the workplace — they know they can be honest and make mistakes, without fear of judgement or dismissal. So are your teams empowered to perform?

Imagine this: you’re on your way to work, when you go to check your emails (it goes without saying that we’re not imagining you behind the wheel here). Buried in between overnight spam and “reply all”s which don’t require your action, you see an urgent message from a very high profile client. They are not best pleased — something’s gone awry, and if anyone is responsible, it’s you.

How do you feel?

Do you wish you could simply disembark the train at the next stop, and spend the day avoiding both the office and home, until the storm blows over by itself? You knew you were out of your depth when you stepped up to that new challenge. And now you dread the idea of sitting in front of your boss and having to explain, step by step, why you thought you could take it on.

Or do you feel a bit disheartened (and perhaps a little ego bruised) but ultimately you want to get to your desk and start to make amends? After all, you know your team — and your manager — has your back. You took a risk, it didn’t pay off. But it’s easily solved with the support of the colleagues.

We hope it’s the latter, as this would mean you feel psychological safety in the workplace.

What is psychological safety?

Put simply: psychological safety is the knowledge that you can be yourself within your organization — that you can work openly, honestly and authentically, without fear of judgment or retribution. 

Psychological safety underpins our confidence to step into the workplace each day, feeling empowered and ready to take on whatever the working week may bring us.

Crucially, psychological safety also creates a climate of sensible risk taking — of pushing yourself into new challenges, assured that should you fall short of the goal, your team won’t point fingers and call out your ‘mistakes’. Instead, they’ll help you get where you need to be.

In this way, company culture is central to creating psychological safety; a certainty in “this is the way we do things around here”. In the example above, if your first response is to hop off the train and make excuses not to come in, it’s likely because you fear the unknown. How are mistakes like this dealt with in your organization? Will your manager be mad? Will they yell? How will you be punished? Will you be punished? Are you fretting over nothing?

A culture that embraces learning, and sees missteps not as failures but rather, as opportunities to grow, is a natural fit for psychological safety. In these organizations, employees feel supported and encouraged to suggest new ways of working — confident that not only will their voices be heard but, should it backfire, the responsibility will be shared.

That’s why psychological safety is a prerequisite of successful organizations. Fail to create a safe, supportive, ‘speak up’ culture and you’ll likely see churn rates soar and productivity deteriorate. Even worse, you’ll create an environment where people are afraid to take risks, thereby stifling innovation and demotivating your more talented people.

Psychological safety is essential for best performance

What makes an employee happy and productive at work?

Role autonomy? Yes. Sense of purpose? Most probably.

But more importantly, it’s the interpersonal relationships they forge with team mates and managers. Of the reasons employees give for leaving a position, lack of company culture, lack of recognition from co-workers and seniors, and unsuccessful relationships with the boss and/or team are often the most frequently cited. Indeed, Gallup found that “managers account for up to 70% of the variance in team engagement.”

Furthermore, productive working relationships require psychological safety. In fact, in their research on team dynamics, Google found that psychological safety was “the most important dynamic in team effectiveness”. 

For many HR managers and leaders, the profound impact employee-manager dynamics have on employee experience is a given. But do we do enough to perpetuate open, honest connections within the team; from employee A to employee B?

How easy is it for teams to build their own support network of psychological safety? Do your team members have colleagues they can speak to, if they need to bounce ideas past someone or ask for their advice on a sensitive professional matter? Does conversation flow freely in meetings, with everyone able to speak their mind and offer up thoughts, without worrying if they are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’? Is hard work recognized? And mistakes seen as learning opportunities?

These are the questions we should ask ourselves, to get a better idea of how psychologically secure we can expect employees to feel. And, in turn, how well we can anticipate them to perform.

But — and this is a crucial point to make — delivering on psychological safety for your employees is not about being soft and cozy. We shouldn’t wrap our teams up in cotton wool and try to protect them from times of conflict, risk and failure.

Psychological safety is not about ‘being nice’

As Amy Edmondson, the Harvard Business School professor who coined the term, says:

“[Psychological safety is] about is candor ... being direct, taking risks, being willing to say, “I screwed that up.” Being willing to ask for help when you’re in over your head.”

Productive teams are not afraid to move forward; to push the boundaries and excel themselves beyond their comfort zone. In turn, teams and managers who are too ‘nice’ can in fact cause productivity to dip.

In a study of 50 CEOs, being “too nice” cost them 8% of gross revenue. Why? Because managers shied away from confrontation, in fear of upsetting their teams. Clearly, if you don’t give feedback on suboptimal performance, you risk creating far bigger organizational and commercial issues.

And this isn’t just true for managers to employees. Honest feedback needs to be given from teams to their leaders, too. If not everyone in the organization has the candor to speak up with their opinions, to flag potential issues before they arise, then we all fall victim to HiPPO — valuing the Highest Paid Person in the Office’s decisions above all else.

Can any of us, in our senior positions, say that we’ve got it right, 100% of the time? No. We need to rely on our teams to give us open and honest feedback. And if they think they need to be ‘nice’ — or worse, fear the experience of feeding up to their managers — this just won’t happen.

So how can you and your teams explore the right balance between ‘safety’ and ‘challenge’? To find the right way for your company to support and nurture, without tolerating careless oversights?

It all comes down to communication.

Building psychological safety through communication

Photo by Eduardo Sánchez on Unsplash

Creating honest, free-flowing dialogue between teams is fundamental to establishing psychological safety. With this, not only is inter-team communication normalized, and therefore encouraged on a regular basis, but the boundaries are broken down between job titles.

A culture of open communication helps overcome hierarchical obstacles. It means that new hires feel welcome to speak up in company-wide meetings — without fear of ridicule. And that water cooler moments can just as easily happen between peers, as between juniors and seniors, or the CEO and an intern.

After all, we know that a successful organization is greater than the sum of its parts. But we need to make sure that all the parts can work together, to which communication is central.

What’s more, communication needs to be invested in. We’ve all been that nervous newcomer, anxiously hovering outside the boss’s door, waiting to step in and have a difficult conversation. These uncomfortable discussions will always be necessary in the workplace — healthy conflict pushes teams forward. But, with the right training and resources, proper communication between all levels of the team can be learned and sustained.

Because if you fast forward to now, in the position you are in today, would you want your employees to feel fear and trepidation to come to your office and talk? No, hopefully not! And so now, as managers, it’s our responsibility to make sure that we exemplify psychological safety in how we act, communicate and respond to everyone within the organization.

Psychological safety comes from the top and trickles down.

So what can you do to make sure you’re modeling this behavior?

3 things you can do today to increase psychological safety in your teams

Psychological safety, like company culture, doesn’t happen overnight. It takes nurturing.

So whether you think you’re just beginning to establish the right culture for psychological safety, or your employees are empowered already, the following 3 actions will help you as you move forward:

  1. Remember, conflict is necessary in a productive workplace. But conflicts, such constructive feedback, should be approached collaboratively, not confrontationally

In his SCARF model, David Rock explores our primitive responses to threat and reward. Whilst Rock’s work has many useful applications in the workplace, one of the most important points to glean is this: when an employee feels socially threatened, a heavy hit of cortisol will block them from thinking straight, which in turn makes them feel more vulnerable and threatened. 

Quite literally, confrontational feedback can send an employee into a downward spiral — one which can, at best, end in an awful day at work. Or, at worst, can result in their notice.

So, managers should always approach conflict — e.g. constructive feedback — as a collaborator, not as the enemy. The focus should be on creating unity, not division - the idea that ‘we are all in this together’ should be continually reinforced. Even ‘bad’ feedback doesn’t need to lead to negative conflict.

Let’s reflect on your organization for a moment: what feedback processes do you currently have in place to support useful, honest feedback loops? And do these happen in real-time, or on a delay?

One quick win is to ensure that constructive or negative feedback is never stockpiled and dished out further down the line. Not only does this create an empathy gap between the event and the performance review, but it can be incredibly damaging for the employee’s sense of ability and psychological safety.

Instead, when faced with potential conflict and negative appraisal, administer this in as timely a manner as possible. Of course, there’s no need to blurt it out immediately, especially if you are around other colleagues and peers, but find a quiet time to take that team member aside and pass on your feedback. 

Make it clear that you are supporting and empowering them — ask if there’s anything they need from you or the organization to help fill a knowledge gap, and partner with them as progress with this feedback in mind. Share the ‘blame’, for lack of a better word…

  1. Flip ‘blame’ on its head — ask questions and don’t point fingers

Managers should absolutely avoid playing the blame game, as this does nothing to instill trust from the rest of the team and will only serve to escalate conflict — all in all, totally expunging any psychological safety that was in place.

When things do go wrong, ask why.

Sit down with each team member and talk through their experience — share your observations of their behavior, in a way that’s neutral and non-judgmental. Having continuous performance management systems in place makes this much easier, as you can track the various ups and downs of an employee’s feedback record.

And be careful of how you speak. Avoid having blame in your tone and rather than you telling them what’s happened, ask them to explain what went down. Frame the conversation as a collaborative one — make it clear you’re not there to point figures. “Help me understand how it is…”, “From your perspective…” etc.

With empathy and understanding, not only will you find your way to a resolution much faster, but you’ll do so in a way that continues the psychological safety your teams need to perform.

  1. Give employees a way to be heard, and show that you hear them

If an employee feels their voice matters, they are 4.6 times more likely to deliver their best work.

Giving your teams a platform for honest, continuous dialogue is crucial in organizations of all shapes and sizes. This could be through an internal chat system, like Slack, or through regular all-company meetings, encouraging individuals from across the team to speak their mind.

However you choose to do it, you also need to respond to what they say. Tell them that you hear them. And act on what they say.

The ‘suggestions box’ approach simply won’t cut it anymore — businesses need a more seamless, compelling way to bring managers and teams together, for organizational success. 

Duuoo facilitates meaningful conversations between teams, and nudges managers to check in with their staff on a regular basis. Using ‘action points’ everyone knows what their goals are, and leaders can collaborate with individuals to make sure the company moves forward, as one. 

What’s more: in a shared communication platform, everyone is equally empowered. There are no scary office doors to step through. It’s a level playing field, with honest communication at its core.

And if we circle back to what psychological safety is all about — the space to be yourself, without fear of judgement or retribution — then that’s definitely a step in the right direction.


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