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  • Writer's pictureSarah Cameron

Creating Psychological Safety At Work

If there's one thing the last two years have told us, it's that the employees have renewed yearning for trust and openness. Equally, the pandemic has forced new ways of working upon us, and there's a feeling from leaders that we cannot – and should not – keep doing what we're doing. These push and pull factors have ratcheted the need to create psychological safety in the workplace. It has never been more critical to treat psychological safety better than a mere buzzword. How can we drive this to make real change and competitive advantage in this brave new world?

Why is Psychological Safety Important at Work?

Perhaps the question should be, "Why not?". Technically and in practical competition, rival businesses are rarely extraordinarily different. One of the best sources of competitive advantage is the people who work for them. Why remove some of this advantage by muffling voices and stemming creative juices?

Psychologically safe employees are productive and creative, and they are also more likely to feel empowered to speak up without ramifications or consequences. Therefore, you can argue that if an organisation doesn't foster such an environment, they are failing to get the most out of their people. It isn't just counterintuitive to business strategy; it's a downright tragedy.

A common misconception is that if an organisation tries to drive psychological safety, they try to play 'Mr. Nice Guy'. This is not what psychological safety is. A crucial part of driving effective psychological safety is by encouraging challenge, debating, brainstorms, and an appropriate level of conflict. Consequently, this fosters openness and teamwork.

How To Drive Psychological Safety at Work

Like many goals or targets, the best place to begin with creating a psychologically safe culture is to make it an explicit goal. It's prudent to work these ambitions into missions and strategic initiatives and communicate intent to your team. It will create a call to action to leadership – the last thing you want is an empty goal, which is all talk and no action. So, the next stage is to make it come alive!

Create powerful, meaningful norms and champion these to everyone in the workplace. Better yet, bring together a committee of a mixture of different departments and job levels who will enthusiastically take on this project.

Norms can focus on two main areas; 

1. The creation of open, positive, and inclusive communication channels. 

2. How to handle failure or risk-taking that doesn't work out. 

Whereas these norms should be positive in slant and avoid the notion of 'punishment' or 'do nots,' everyone should be aware of their limits, especially when taking financial or legally dangerous risks.

Moving away from the boring but necessary world of creating policies and procedures pays dividends to create spaces that nurture creative and innovative thought. The notion of 'space' might refer to mental space such as downtime or allowing time for scrums, to literal space, such as office layout and furniture arrangements for collaboration and encouragement of creative thought.

Finally, monitor and measure how your new and improved psychologically safe culture is progressing. Listen for word on the street, conduct stay interviews and engagement surveys, and pay attention to leaver feedback – the latter might be tough love but can offer great insight. Are you going to get all elements of a psychologically safe culture right all the time? Certainly not, but be agile enough to fix and tweak things as needed.

Final Thoughts

The only way to drive competitive advantage through psychological safety is to make it a fundamental business priority. Reinforce its purpose through goals norms and creating tangible and intangible cultural elements to encourage healthy discourse. Why bother? Your people depend on it, and your business will thrive.


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