Psychological Safety in the Workplace

Historically, work environments have put significant emphasis on physical safety. Signs touting the number of days worked without an accident are commonplace in manufacturing and construction environments. OSHA dictates that all workers have the right to a safe workplace and employers must provide a workplace free from recognized hazards. As HR professionals, we have all supported training and employee communications such as OSHA posters.

Fast-forward to today’s decentralized workplaces and there are contemporary issues. Active shooter drills. State mandated COVID regulations. Building and cybersecurity.

But what about psychological safety? More difficult to identify, psychologically unsafe work environments can be just as risky as dealing with hazardous materials on the job. As HR professionals, what can we be doing to identify the signals and support a culture of psychological safety?

What Does Unsafe Look Like?

When workers feel unsafe in their work environment, they “hunker down” and not in a way that support high-performance. Instead, they are unwilling to freely share ideas and learn new things. The status quo is the norm; speaking up is discouraged and employees see no reward in taking risks. Productivity starts to lower, and surprises occur frequently because the workforce is not proactively flagging and sharing exceptions that could have been managed.

Harvard professor and author of Fearless Organization, Dr. Amy Edmondson, says, “Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.” She adds, “It can be defined as a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”

Dr. Edmondson’s quote warrants reflection. How many of workplaces exhibit unproductive behaviors such as defensiveness, lack of focus or limited social interaction? And how does this translate into lower productivity, higher attrition and dismal employee engagement?

What Can You Do to Create Safety?

At the core of workplace safety is trust and the journey to a psychologically safe workplace starts by modeling healthy behaviors. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Are our managers listening to employees’ ideas or being dismissive?
  • Are we welcoming questions and ideas?
  • Do employees feel they can rely upon us to protect their best interests?
  • Are we consistently checking in with employees – especially in work-from-anywhere models – to show we care about them?
  • How often are we demonstrating appreciation for a job well done, whether a simple thank you or a formal recognition, to provide reinforcement for open communications?

You can create a culture of psychological safety, especially if you are authentic, consistent and credible. When a workplace is psychologically safe, employees aren’t afraid of receiving negative reactions. They will ask for help without feeling it reveals some weakness. Greater innovation will happen because innovative ideas are openly shared. Workers who feel psychologically safe know their work matters and their voices are valued. And replacing a culture of shaming and blaming with curiosity will translate into a much healthier, progressive organization.