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6 easy steps to build psychological safety at work

September 26, 2023
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It goes without saying, feeling safe is important. We all know that feeling anxious, stressed, and insecure impacts everything we do negatively, including our work — and our employees are no different. No one wants to be living in what is akin to a constant fight-or-flight response.

The atmosphere at work can influence individuals’ sense of psychological safety, so it’s vital to ensure the environment in your organisation affects it positively rather than detrimentally. We’ve gathered some of our top tips to promote psychological safety at work to support you.

What is psychological safety at work?

Psychological safety is the absence of interpersonal fear, or the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake. It’s that simple, but it is invaluable: workplaces with a high sense of psychological safety have better performance, engagement, diversity, creativity, and retention.

Further reading: What is psychological safety and why is it important?

How to increase psychological safety at work?

While high psychological safety brings many benefits, a low sense of safety can cause burnout, stress, and a high employee turnover rate. It’s essential that businesses take active measures to guarantee an atmosphere that’s conducive to psychological safety. Here are a few things you can do to nurture this.

1. Create a culture of dialogue and feedback

If you believe that your employees are going to come to you for every problem they have, you’re wrong. Most people prefer not to rock the boat and to keep their thoughts and opinions to themselves unless specifically asked. So your role has to be to specifically ask. Firstly, you need to make feedback an integral part of your process. Explain to them why you’re seeking their input, why it matters, and how it will affect any outcomes.

But this doesn’t only extend to organisational matters. Your culture should be, in every part of the business, one of dialogue — not a manager giving instructions and an employee fulfilling them. You want to understand what your staff thinks, their struggles, and their highlights. The goal is to encourage them to feel like you are truly listening to them and like there would be no repercussions from what they share with you.

On top of this cultural shift, a great way to request genuine feedback is through surveys. This will give a sense of safety in answering difficult questions, as the answers are anonymous. Through the Thrive platform, you can ask your employees to take part in regular surveys created by experienced psychologists, and view an analysis of their results as well as ways to support development in your weaker areas.

2. Lead with responsibility

The goal is to normalise vulnerability. You’re asking your employees to put themselves in a vulnerable position. So you need to show them that you are committed to this.

Own up to your own mistakes. Tell them how you’ve learned from other errors in judgement. Show them that you can also accept responsibility for your faults and how you rise from them. Beyond mistakes, you should present the attitude you want to see from your employees. Be open to feedback, take some calculated risks, and be respectful and transparent with others.

3. View conflict resolution as a collaboration

When a conflict inevitably arises, how you deal with it is another thing your employees will take notice of. Whether it’s providing or receiving feedback, responding to a crazy idea, or reacting to people speaking up, it’s necessary that your actions reflect the values and behaviours you expect from your employees.

If you create an environment of conflict surrounding feedback, brainstorming, or disagreements, you’re going to get a competition. If you want safety and a productive resolution, you should treat these as a collaboration. At the end of the day, everyone’s goal is the same — to produce the best possible outcome. This is the context these should be viewed in, not conflict. Ask how all parties can achieve a mutually-desired result together, and work from there.

4. Highlight progress

Celebrating successes is an inherent part of a healthy business culture. However, the way you frame these successes, and which ones you choose to recognise, can also impact the feeling of psychological safety.

Highlighting progress rather than simple outcomes is a fantastic way to show your commitment to learning from mistakes, rather than being penalised. Acknowledging how someone grew over time, how they’ve taken feedback onboard, or how they’ve moved forward from an error, can show your team that these efforts don’t go unnoticed.

5. Promote empathy

The simplest way to make others feel safe is to act in an empathetic manner towards them. When you consider how the other person feels, you actively appraise how they might react to what you tell them, and deliver it in a way that highlights your intention, which is positive and productive. By treating others with respect and with attention placed on their perception and feelings, the atmosphere becomes healthier.

You can encourage your team to think about others, even in the most contentious conflicts, as a whole other person like them. Remind your employees that the person in front of them has beliefs, perspectives, opinions, hopes, anxieties, and vulnerabilities just like them — and just like them, they want to resolve things peacefully and end on a positive note. If everyone in your business makes sure to remind themselves of that, conflict will become less likely in the first place — but in the cases when it occurs, you’ll have a healthy environment to solve it.

Further reading: What is emotional intelligence and why is it important in the workplace?

6. Let go of the concept of blame

Whenever a mistake has been made, it’s almost a reaction now to ask ‘who did it?’. But, when we look into this a little closer, really, who cares?

Of course, we want people to learn from mistakes, and to feel agency and responsibility regarding their work. But blame has nothing to do with any of this — it’s about feeling ashamed or embarrassed, it’s about feeling bad. Taking responsibility, however, is about correcting it. One looks into the past, the other into the future. And our business should always look into the future.

According to studies from the University of Washington, blame and criticism escalate conflict, lead to defensiveness, and cause disengagement. Instead, you should have a dialogue. Come to conflicts or mistakes armed with questions intended to understand how you can support your employee in progressing and improving. Instead of ‘you’re doing poorly, you have to pull yourself together, the project failed because of you’, try to approach the situation with other queries: ‘I’ve noticed that in the past month there was a slowing down of progress on your project. I know that you care about the job you do, so I want to support you in every way I can. There are probably a number of factors in this, would you mind if we tried to work together to solve them? What do you think needs to be done? And what would be your ideal scenario? How could I support you?’.

If you want to discover how Thrive can help you promote psychological safety, book a demo with us today.

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