Psychological safety in the workplace

December 15, 2023

In the dynamic environment of the modern workplace, psychological safety has to be considered a cornerstone for fostering innovation, enhancing team dynamics, and shaping a healthy company culture. But what is psychological safety and how concretely does it affect individuals and organizations?

Olga Klamut

Table of Content

What is psychological safety?

Coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, psychological safety at work is a critical concept that underpins an environment where individuals feel secure to express ideas, take risks, and collaborate without fear of reprisal. It is a concept that creates the environment for an individual to reach optimal functioning, and for companies to achieve the results they need.

When we think of the word safety, we might consider physical safety as a prerequisite of this definition. However, psychological safety is a basic human need that is often misinterpreted and deprioritized. 

Unlike the loud and obvious manifestations of a lack of physical safety, which may show up as physical illness or pain, the absence of psychological safety is a danger lurking in the shadows. A lack of psychological safety is like a persistent rock in your shoe, quietly chipping away at your mental health. 

Basic human needs for safety, belonging, and acceptance are interconnected, and when the psychological aspect is neglected, individuals may find themselves grappling with the decline of their mental health.

Although the topic is increasingly talked about, only 25% of leaders currently manage to implement psychological safety for their teams. 

A recent study by the Ecsell Institute has also produced some astonishing findings, based on the analysis of one of the world's largest data sets on psychological safety. The study shows that teams whose managers score high on psychological safety show significantly increased productivity and bring in an average of $4.3 million more annually.

How psychological safety affects our body

Our nervous system is intricately tied to our sense of safety. When our basic needs, including psychological safety, are met, our nervous system remains regulated. This regulation is essential for maintaining both physical and mental health. A regulated nervous system is indicative of a state where the body and mind feel secure. 

In contrast, a lack of psychological safety often results in nervous system dysregulation. This dysregulation can manifest as heightened stress, anxiety, or even a sense of chronic unease. Over time, the prolonged dysregulation of the nervous system can inhibit both, physical and mental health, impacting productivity, creativity, and overall well-being.

The positive impact of safety at work

Several studies have shown the positive impact of psychological safety at work. Individuals within a psychologically safe environment are more likely to contribute their unique perspectives, fostering a sense of belonging and job satisfaction. The acceptance of failure as a part of the learning process is a crucial aspect. It's about creating an atmosphere where employees feel comfortable taking risks, knowing that mistakes are opportunities for growth.

Providing psychological safety involves leadership role modeling, clear communication channels, and actively encouraging feedback. Leaders play a pivotal role in shaping the culture, and their acknowledgment of mistakes and encouragement of open dialogue set the tone for the entire organization.

The role of leadership in creating psychological safety

Conscious leadership plays a pivotal role in creating and sustaining a psychologically safe workplace. Leaders must strike a delicate balance between providing freedom for individual expression and maintaining strong boundaries and non-negotiables within the team. 

While creating team environments with a lot of freedom and individuality may seem risky to some leaders, it is precisely where the highest skills in leadership come into play. This approach includes a level of delegating tasks and relinquishing some control, which may initially be challenging for leaders.

However, true leadership involves being in control while still providing freedom. This requires self-regulation as a leader, ensuring that your own needs are taken care of, and being honest and open with team members.

True leadership is about more than being on a pedestal; it's about normalizing mistakes and failures. Taking a group effort and responsibility to fix and learn from them is a hallmark of effective leadership. 

When leaders demonstrate vulnerability and humility, they foster an environment where team members feel safe to do the same. True leadership begins with the leaders themselves feeling psychologically safe. When leaders prioritize their well-being, it creates a ripple effect, fostering psychological safety expansively within the work environment. Leaders who prioritize their mental health create a foundation for a culture of trust, collaboration, and continuous improvement.

The benefits of psychological safety for organizations

Psychological safety not only benefits individuals but also plays a pivotal role in driving organizational success. Companies that prioritize psychological safety tend to be more innovative, productive, and attractive to top talent: 

  • Employee engagement and performance: Moreover, a psychologically safe workplace is a catalyst for increased engagement, resilience, and the delivery of high-quality work. When employees feel secure in expressing their opinions and ideas, they are more likely to be engaged in their work. Engagement is not just about fulfilling tasks; it's about a deep sense of commitment and passion for the work at hand.
  • Resilience: Furthermore, psychological safety fosters resilience among team members. In an environment where failure is viewed as an opportunity for growth, individuals become more resilient in the face of challenges. They bounce back from setbacks with renewed determination, contributing to a more dynamic and adaptive workplace culture. 
  • Quality of work: The quality of work is inherently tied to psychological safety. When individuals feel supported and valued, they are empowered to put forth their best efforts. This results in a collective commitment to delivering high-quality work, fostering a culture of excellence and continuous improvement. 

Measuring psychological safety in the workplace involves assessing the level of openness, trust, and comfort within teams. Regular surveys, feedback sessions, and monitoring the frequency of constructive discussions can provide insights into the organization's psychological safety quotient.

Psychological safety in the workplace is a culture that values open communication, embraces diverse perspectives and views mistakes as opportunities for improvement. It is a commitment to creating an environment where every team member feels heard, valued, and empowered to contribute.

Key takeaways

As organizations navigate the complexities and needs of the modern workplace, the significance of psychological safety cannot be overstated. In doing so, they unlock the potential for innovation, collaboration, and individual well-being, creating a workplace that not only survives but thrives in the ever-evolving professional landscape. 

Recognizing that psychological safety is a basic human need is the first step towards cultivating a workplace where individuals can flourish both personally and professionally. Understanding psychological safety through a somatic lens emphasizes its impact on our nervous system, highlighting the imperative role it plays in maintaining overall health and well-being. 

A psychologically safe workplace, with its capacity to enhance engagement, resilience, and quality of work, sets the stage for greater organizational success in the long run.

Conscious leadership, with the freedom to express alongside strong boundaries and non-negotiables, is the cornerstone of this equation. While it may seem challenging to strike a balance between providing freedom and maintaining control, it is within this delicate equilibrium that true leadership emerges. By being self-regulated, prioritizing their own well-being, and normalizing mistakes, leaders can create an environment where psychological safety flourishes, contributing to a culture of excellence and continuous improvement.

You want to learn more about practical tips on how to create psychological safety for HR and leaders? Download our guide below:

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