How HR Can Improve Psychological Safety in the Workplace

Enthusiastic team discussing ideas at a collaborative office meeting.
Organizations that thrive know how to motivate employees and tap into the power of synergy. The concept of “synergy,” which fuels both creativity and job satisfaction, is described by the American Psychology Association as “a social process that occurs when a group, by acting in concert, achieves an outcome that is superior to what would be achieved by the most capable member or by any simple pooling of individual member efforts. [It is] often summarized by the phrases ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’ or ‘2 + 2 = 5.’”

Applying that formula is the goal of many growth-oriented companies and organizations, but there’s one hitch: Many employees stay silent and hold themselves back from expressing their best ideas because they’re afraid of rejection and being judged. Some may lack the confidence to voice their opinions, while others worry about looking foolish or even sounding stupid. The solution to this problem gets to the very core of how to improve “psychological safety” at work.

What is Psychological Safety?

The Center for Creative Leadership defines psychological safety at work as “the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.”

The question managers and HR departments need to grapple with relates directly to the question: “How can we get our staff to share their creative ideas and solutions, without them being stymied by fears of criticism, rejection, or judgement?” Implementing a program to improve psychological safety at work is the first step.

Removing communication barriers enables creative ideas to flow more freely. When those conditions prevail, valuable strategies and innovations are often brought to the surface. It’s been documented that one of the fundamental barriers to the free exchange of ideas in the workplace is inhibition. That fact was spotlighted in a 2017 Gallup study in which 30% of employees surveyed “strongly agreed” that their opinions don’t matter at work.

A concerted effort to reassure people that their opinions DO count will release pent-up ideas and solutions that can help your organization move forward, overcome obstacles, and create a more positive work environment.

How to Improve Psychological Safety at Work

On its website, the CCL offers five ways leaders can help create psychological safety at work:

  1. Make emotional safety an explicit priority. Discuss the importance of psychological safety and set a positive example by modeling the desired behaviors.
  2. Facilitate the process. Leaders are encouraged to be open minded and compassionate when employees challenge the status quo. [To help support the process, managers may find it useful to employ active listening techniques and steer discussions in positive directions.]
  3. Establish norms for handling failure. Managers who share lessons learned from mistakes and support calculated risk-taking will “encourage innovation instead of sabotaging it.” [Providing guidance, positive feedback, and assistance when needed can keep projects on track and ensure the productive use of resources.]
  4. Create space for innovative ideas. Recognize and be open to the potential of untested, out-of-the box ideas.
  5. Embrace productive conflict. Determine a strategy and guidelines for resolving disagreements respectfully and productively. [Establish ground rules that all members of the group can accept, agree to, and abide by.]

Setting a Standard for Emotional Safety at Work

An article in the Harvard Business Review discusses the importance of creating “psychological safety” in the workplace. Psychological safety, as defined by Harvard Business School Professor Amy C. Edmondson, is “the confidence that candor and vulnerability are welcome in a workplace.”

According to Edmondson, author of The Fearless Organization, strengthening psychological safety in the workplace involves a four-step strategy:

  • Train employees individually and as a team.
  • Focus on the fact that high performance is a natural outgrowth of open communication and the sharing of ideas and expertise.
  • Incorporate visualization techniques to help employees gain confidence and learn how to strategize, plan, and effectively address challenges.
  • Normalize work-related vulnerability and the acceptance of taking risks.

Getting team members to practice taking small, but continuous interpersonal risks is part of her philosophy for building a psychologically safe work environment. Encouraging staff to venture outside their “comfort zones” in a safe environment helps remove barriers to creativity and the exchange of ideas. Note: In developing these strategies, Edmondson collaborated with Per Hugander, an international business coach, innovation consultant, and business blogger.

The Importance of Withholding Judgement When Brainstorming

Writing in Inc Magazine about conducting a successful virtual brainstorming session, entrepreneur Soren Kaplan lists five steps to generating and prioritizing quality ideas. He says setting a positive tone and establishing guidelines are key to a productive meeting of the minds. Kaplan, the founder of Praxie, suggests developing objectives, such as working together to generate a large quantity of ideas and deferring judgment until it’s time to prioritize. He notes that a collaborative approach to brainstorming involves encouraging participants to build on one another’s ideas.

After all members of the group have shared their thoughts and ideas, he suggests a priority list be created based on the following criteria:

  • Feasibility
  • Impact
  • Customer value
  • Return on investment

Many innovators and business leaders believe that the generation of ideas is a strong starting point for innovation and progress. However, ideas need to be nurtured and put into action to have any real value.

As Kaplan states, “Ideas themselves are a dime a dozen. Ideas that get implemented are worth their weight in gold.” He emphasizes that creating implementation teams and following through with detailed action plans are vital aspects of producing results from brainstorming sessions.

How to Make a Psychological Safety Strategy Work

The prerequisite for a successful psychological safety program is that managers and team members need to be supportive of one another and committed to maintaining a nonthreatening, judgement-free work environment. Achieving that kind of company culture may seem like a “work in progress,” but any strides in the right direction can benefit employee morale, innovation, and the quality of communication in your workplace.

If you’d like to learn more about business communication, workplace safety, and health issues, download our free guide to building a healthy workplace. We also invite you to consider the many training courses KnowledgeCity offers on timely topics, such as working from home, preventing fatigue on the job, returning to work during the pandemic, team building, quality assurance, and project management.

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