Psychological Safety in the Workplace – Is it Important?

Psychological Safety in the workplace

Before you assume that ‘psychological safety’ is just the latest buzz-term to be batted around corporations, read on.

As the economy delivers a continually bleak outlook, as the fallout from Covid-19 takes hold, and as budgets to train and develop workforces shrink like they’re in Alice’s Wonderland, a common-but-entirely-true saying is easily forgotten: an organisation is only as strong as its people.

Yet a good portion of investment into businesses is pushed into technology, equipment, product marketing and premises well before employees see any of it.

Creating a psychologically safe workplace isn’t about painting the walls a zingy shade of lime or installing a fireman’s pole for staff to descend to lower levels. Though a ‘fun’ setting may have a slight impact on workers than if they were surrounded by dull, grey walls for eight hours each day, the real differences between a motivated, innovative, productive, loyal workforce and one that simply goes through the motions are more behavioural and intuitive.

UK PLC doesn’t hold the best record for innovation compared to other countries. Our global ranking in this respect is 18th, with such as Israel (5th), Austria (12th) and Finland (3rd) ahead of us. If our economy wants to thrive once again it must rank much more highly against other world players.

Innovation isn’t just the introduction of new ideas, it also impacts processes and internal culture, the supply chain and delivery, methodology and strategy, packaging and marketing…and dozens more elements. Innovation should absolutely apply to an organisation’s people, if they’re to be forward-thinking, motivated, powerful and effective.

A recent survey showed that 90% of UK businesses wish to be more innovative. It’s therefore surprising why employees are often at the bottom of the ‘innovation list’. All other parts of an organisation’s products and processes can be copied and controlled by its competitors; what can’t be replicated is the experience your people can deliver – to customers, colleagues, and the company overall. Thankfully, there are more conversations these days about mental health. Ensuring psychological safety and creating a working culture around this subject can foster healthy minds. It’s not about everyone constantly being nice to one another, as this isn’t always realistic – or healthy. It’s about laying the groundwork so that when disagreement, conflict or opposing ideas rear – which they must, if bosses wish to see innovation and progress – they’re dealt with effectively, in a healthy manner. In business, difficult conversations need to be held, not ignored or brushed under the carpet; feedback needs to be given for progress to be made…but there are just effective ways of delivering it.

One definition of psychological safety was given by Edmonson in 2012: “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up. It describes a team climate characterised by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”

Google carried out its own research on the definition of an effective team. They found five characteristics common amongst teams that excelled versus teams they deemed ‘fell behind’ in their study. These definitions were: dependability (promises and expectations acted on and met); structure and clarity (clearly-defined roles, goals and boundaries); meaning (tasks and responsibilities being personally significant to team members; impact (the belief that the work carried out had purpose and was for the greater good); and lastly, psychological safety. The latter element incorporates three critical intelligences: emotional, social and attentional. We’ve all heard of emotional intelligence by now; it’s even one of the top ten skills employers wish their teams to exhibit, according to the World Economic Forum. Social intelligence can loosely be described as how we interact with others, and perhaps the third is not as widely known – ‘attentional intelligence’ is the process of consciously aligning and directing our attention towards our goals.

Leaders and managers – having day-to-day, direct contact with teams – perhaps have the most influence on them, too; and should, therefore, be the focus of any training. They’re the ones employees will look to for guidance, feedback, boundaries, etc., and also the ones employees will approach with new ideas or reservations concerning the status quo. Dealt with effectively, leaders can address the issue at hand and provide welcome help and support that ultimately develops the individual, and which also has an impact on the team’s overall goal. If dealt with poorly, though, managers have (perhaps unwittingly) the power to destroy confidence, to create ill-feeling amongst team-members, to diminish motivation, and to cause confusion at every turn. See how important it is? How quickly and easily the wrong culture can take hold…?

Here’s our rundown of 12 top tips towards creating psychological safety in the workplace.

Our Jigsaw Discovery Tool (JDT) is the perfect way for leaders and employees to understand more about their behaviour and that of others around them. Offering a higher level of intuition than traditional psychometric tests and learning tools, the JDT doesn’t just rely on self-perception but encourages genuine responses from others, because there can be a wide gulf between how you see yourself and how others see you