The importance of psychological safety at work

No worker expects their workplace to be a palace of fun. Each working day brings new challenges, some hard and unexpected. What they do demand, though, is to feel safe. Regrettably, many find their psychological safety at work threatened by toxic, unsupportive cultures that induce stress and worry. 

Take Grace, a hypothetical administrative worker from Brisbane. Grace is of Papua New Guinean descent and suffers from a physical disability that produces inflammation and tenderness in her joints.

A psychologically safe workplace embraces Grace’s diversity – it supports, values and respects her individuality, encouraging her to do her best. This kind of workplace facilitates Grace to be more creative, innovative and productive, which improves the organisation’s performance. Grace knows her opinions count, and she’s proud to be part of an organisation that strives for excellence in everything it does – especially diversity, equity and inclusion.

Well-functioning businesses support the psychological well-being of employees like Grace and encourage their personal development as part of an inclusive and effective team. 

In a two-year study called Project Aristotle, Google discovered five components of high-performing teams:

  • Psychological safety
  • Dependability
  • Structure and clarity
  • Meaning of work
  • Impact of work.

Google also found that the majority of those surveyed considered psychological safety the most critical of the five and the foundation for the other components – and, of course, Grace agrees.

Many issues that threaten psychological safety in the workplace arise due to a business’ failure to understand the diverse backgrounds and requirements of its employees. 

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training addresses this misunderstanding and creates a more harmonious workplace where workers feel psychologically safe.

The importance of psychological safety at work

The importance of psychological safety

A Harvard Business Review study revealed that what makes employees loyal, productive and happy is psychological safety at work – the trust employees have in their company’s values and leadership and their ability to speak up without fear of retribution.

In today’s workplace, creating a positive work environment is a challenge that goes beyond pay. Many employees would be happy to earn less money if it meant they enjoyed their work more. They want to feel part of something important and know they can make not just a contribution but also a difference. Psychological safety engenders this type of workplace.

A business with a horrendous workplace culture functions poorly, with each individual working alone, siloed from their colleagues. Conversely, an organisation invested in its workers’ mental health naturally fosters cooperation among members of a team. Indeed, psychological safety should be thought of as the foundation of teamwork – teams with high levels of psychological safety easily solve problems, come up with original ideas and perform under pressure. 

Psychological safety at work is more than just a sense of comfort; it’s the feeling that you can be yourself around your colleagues, openly expressing your thoughts with the confidence that others will not embarrass, reject or punish you for speaking up.

How do you measure psychological safety?

Researchers have been studying psychological safety for decades. But how does a business measure psychological safety? 

HR professionals should be equipped with the appropriate skill set to take a data-driven approach when measuring the psychological safety of an organisation’s most important asset – its people.

Conducting pulse surveys with relevant questions will provide managers with information on what level of psychological safety exists within the organisation, how effective it is and where more effort is needed. 

Surveys should ask probing questions from employees to collect data that provides valuable insight into what’s working and not working regarding employee engagement. If a survey throws up warning signs of low psychological safety, managers must dig deeper to discover the causes. 

Symptoms of a psychologically unsafe workplace

According to the American Psychological Association, “Psychologically unsafe workplaces are characterised by a combination of negative conditions, including frequency of rudeness or disrespect, lack of concern for employee feelings and opinions and disregard for the wellbeing of employees.”

A psychologically unsafe environment can be stressful, even harmful, to people’s productivity and health. Signs and symptoms that indicate a psychologically unsafe workplace are:

  • Employees don’t raise concerns during meetings.
  • Employees don’t feel comfortable admitting to mistakes – or they place the blame on others.
  • Teams cannot problem solve.
  • Executives and team leaders dominate meetings.
  • Workers don’t support other colleagues or venture outside of their roles.
  • No one’s asking one another for help. 
  • There are very few disagreements or differing points of view.
  • Employees only know one another professionally and don’t care to know each other personally.

Once you understand the issues contributing to low levels of psychological safety in your organisation, you can create a plan of action to address them.

Building psychological safety

Embracing diversity fosters psychological security and makes people feel comfortable being themselves, leading to reduced stress and increased staff satisfaction.

Mistakes will happen. But in a psychologically safe atmosphere, people feel secure enough to take risks and correct mistakes without feeling embarrassed. 

Workplace productivity depends on the well-being of its workers. However, not everyone has the same level of self-confidence. A wheelchair user discriminated against in a previous job may need more encouragement than others and require that their employer has inclusive measures in place.

Once settled and happy in their role, that same wheelchair user begins to excel, inspiring other less-confident colleagues to do the same – all because this savvy business saw the potential in every team member, regardless of differences. This is why encouraging diversity, equity and inclusion is critical: it leads to high-performing employees who feel psychologically safe at work.

Looking to improve diversity, equity and inclusion and build psychological safety in your organisation? Visit our blog for more useful information and resources.

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