6 Ways to Promote Psychological Safety in the Workplace

Want to drastically improve your team’s performance? Then, psychological safety needs to start being a priority. Psychological safety is simply a measure of how comfortable employees are with expressing ideas and concerns, as well as sharing challenges and successes.

Focused professional in a purple shirt working intently at his desk with a laptop.

It’s been three years since Google released the findings of one of the most extensive research projects ever conducted to determine the key components of successful teams. Widely known for leading some of the highest performing teams in the business world, Google found that the single most important component to successful teams is psychological safety.

However, a December 2017 Gallup poll found that only three in 10 employees felt strongly that their opinions count at work. Consequently, Gallup estimated that by increasing this ratio to six in 10, organizations could expect a 27 percent turnover reduction, a 40 percent safety incident reduction, and a 12 percent increase in productivity. A recent Pew Research Center survey further found that 89 percent of adults feel that it’s imperative for today’s business leaders to nurture safe and respectful work environments.

Consequences of Ignoring Psychological Safety

Psychological safety remains largely unrecognized by senior executives when it should be a top priority. Consequently, it often fails to have any meaningful part in the daily experience of the average employee.

The #metoo movement is a prime example of how damaging disregarding psychological safety can be to any given organization. Amy Edmondson notes this phenomenon in her book, The Fearless Organization, in which she argues that fear is ineffective in leadership when it comes to handling interpersonal work relationship, calling fear the “skunk at the garden party” and pointing to how it specifically destroys teamwork, creativity, and innovation.

“[The] recent tidal wave of harassment claims highlights the costs of failing to create a psychologically safe workplace for women,” Edmundson writes.

Further studies indicate that fear directly inhibits cooperation and learning by fostering an “epidemic of silence.” So, it is far from an effective motivator, especially in the long run.

Why Psychological Safety Is Critical for Success

The reason for our dependency on psychological safety is deeply embedded in our very genetic code. Psychological safety’s importance and fragility is the result of adaptive behaviors that evolved to handle uncertain, interdependent environments. The brain processes provocation as a life-or-death threat. Whether it’s a boss, subordinate, or coworker, this fight-or-flight response ends up hijacking our higher brain centers, effectively shutting down perspective and analytical thinking in favor of “act first, think later” responses. While this reaction could prove critical in actual life-or-death circumstances, it critically handicaps necessary strategic thinking for business.

Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina suggests that professional success depends on a broaden-and-build system that relies on positive emotions to help us solve complex problems and build cooperative relationships. Fredrickson found that positive emotions, such as confidence, curiosity, trust and inspiration broaden our minds and assist us in building psychological, physical, and social resources. When we feel safe, we become more motivated, persistent, resilient and open-minded. Furthermore, oxytocin levels increase, encouraging trusting and trust-making behavior. When work feels challenging rather than threatening, teams sustain this broaden-and-build mode.

“In Google’s fast-paced, highly demanding environment, our success hinges on the ability to take risks and be vulnerable in front of peers,” Paul Santagata, Head of Industry at Google, said.

So, the question isn’t why or how psychological safety is important. Rather, it’s – how do you increase your team’s psychological safety?

Here are the steps Santagata took with his Google team to build psychological safety:

  1. Be a Collaborator. We naturally hate losing more than we love winning. Perceived losses triggers behaviors to reestablish an even playing field through competition, criticism or disengagement. However, this is a form of workplace helplessness. Santagata suggests looking for a win-win outcome to achieve true success. When conflict arises, you can avoid triggering a fight-or-flight reaction by simply asking yourself and your team – “How can we reach a mutually desirable outcome?”
  2. Practice “Just Like Me.” Recognize deeper needs, such as respect, competence, social status, and autonomy, to elicit trust and promote positive language and behaviors. Santagata advises, even in the most contentious of situations, to remember that the other party is just like you and to consider the following:
  • This person has opinions, perspectives and beliefs – Just like me.
  • This person has vulnerabilities, anxieties and hopes – Just like me.
  • This person has friends, family and maybe even children – Just like me.
  • This person wants to feel competent, respected and appreciated – Just like me.
  • This person wishes for happiness, peace and joy – Just like me.
  1. Anticipate Reactions and Plan Accordingly. When dealing with difficult conversations, prepare for likely reactions before you ever say a word. Make sure to look at the discussion from a third-party perspective to find position weaknesses and rethink how you phrase your points. Specifically, you should ask yourself:
  • What are my main points?
  • What are three ways my audience is likely to react?
  • How do I respond to each of these scenarios?
  1. Replace Blame with Curiosity. If your team feels like you are playing the blame game, then they are going to jump on the defensive. According to John Gottman’s University of Washington research, blame and criticism generally escalate conflict, causing defensiveness and disengagement. As an alternative, practice curiosity. When you go into a discussion thinking that you already know the other person’s position, then you’re not ready to have a productive conversation. So, adopt a learning mindset and assume you don’t have all the facts by:
  • Using factual, neutral language to state the problem as an observation.
  • Engaging them in exploring solutions together.
  • Asking for solutions. Those responsible for a problem typically hold the keys to its resolution. So, directly ask for input on the solution in terms of what your audience thinks should happen or how you can support a solution.
  1. Ask for delivery feedback. Requesting feedback on message delivery disarms your opponent, reveals communication shortfalls and shows fallibility, which can increase trust. Santagata ends difficult discussion with these questions:
  • What worked and didn’t work in my delivery?
  • How did you feel hearing this message?
  • What could I have done to present it more effectively?
  1. Make Regular Assessments of Psychological Safety. Santagata routinely asks his team about how safe they are feeling and what could improve their feelings of safety. His team also takes psychological safety and team dynamic surveys. Some Google teams include questions like “How confident do you feel that you won’t receive criticism or retaliation for errors or mistakes?”

By creating a strong sense of psychological safety in your workplace, research shows that you can take the results straight to the bank in terms of higher employment engagement, increased motivation to solve difficult problems, better performance, higher productivity, and more learning and development opportunities.

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