Improve Psychological Safety at Work

Improve Psychological Safety at Work

Psychological safety plays a major role in creating successful teams, according to Google’s Project Aristotle study.

It’s also a widespread challenge: over 50% of employees in global organisations having faced psychologically unsafe situations at work, while another study found that only 34% of staff felt safe to take a risk at work.

In that light, we’re taking a look at changes that will improve psychological safety in your workplace.

What is Psychological Safety?

Amy Edmondson, a leading Harvard Business School researcher on the topic, identified the significance of psychological safety for collaboration and teamwork at work.

According to her work that began over 20 years ago, psychological safety is the ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’’

Why is Psychological Safety Important?

Psychological safety ensures that admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea will not be met with punishment, embarrassment or some other penalty.

Creating a psychologically safe environment in the workplace can help staff achieve their potential and contribute more to the team. Psychological safety is the foundation for other elements of high performing teams.

Psychological safety is incredibly important to leverage the power of diverse teams. Diverse teams have many benefits, including innovation and problem solving, but must overcome the challenges of differences from language, communication, values, reasoning and decision-making preferences.

How can Leaders Improve Psychological Safety at Work?

There are many actions that can help workplaces to become more psychologically safe. We’ve got eight changes that will make a big difference.

Adopt a Learning Mindset

When a mistake occurs, it’s natural to try to find out who’s at fault, but individuals feeling like they’ve ‘lost’ can lead to defensiveness and a desire to reestablish fairness through competition, disengagement, or criticism.

Instead, having a learning mindset through problem solving and focusing on learning after a mistake. This can prevent staff feeling afraid of punishment and blame if they fail.

Avoiding blame can take issues from an individual mistake to the responsibility of a group. If something goes wrong focus on finding solutions and ask questions such as “How can we make sure this goes better next time?”

Additionally, teach team members that feedback on their ideas are not criticism but a way to build on and improve their ideas.

Encourage Active Listening

Active listening signals that people are respected:

  • When teams meet, leave phones and other distractions at the door.
  • Ask questions to prompt a team member to share more. This also demonstrates that you’re interested in what they have to say.
  • Teach team members how to respond to ideas shared by others.
  • Show understanding of what has been said by repeating it back and asking for confirmation or clarification.
  • If someone in the room has been quiet during the discussion, directly ask for their input.
  • If you are leading the conversation, pause (by silently counting to 10) before moving on, so that team members have time to think about what they want to say and have time to say it.

Take Action Against Negativity

If a team member is speaking negatively about a peer, it may stop them from volunteering ideas in future. Counsel team members who are negative, focus on constructive feedback and foster inclusivity within the team.

Invest in Bringing Employees Together

With so much workplace communication taking place online through email and Slack, make the extra effort to bring employees face-to-face.

Structured team building can provide opportunities to take risks and trust each other. ‘Practicing’ in this format will help employees to learn that the organisation supports risk taking and mistakes are okay.

Value People Over Processes

Rather than viewing employees as a tool to achieving financial outcomes or other efficiency measures, help employees to feel emotionally secure.

A study published in the Journal of Productivity and Performance Management found that employees are more engaged, productive and innovative when they feel emotionally secure.

Communicate human-to-human rather than role-to-role through trusting others, active listening, and showing compassion and empathy. If there is conflict, approach it with curiosity instead of judgement. The underlying needs of every who-did-what confrontation are competence, respect, social status, and autonomy, therefore addressing these needs can promote trust, positive language and behaviour.

Paul Santagata, Head of Industry at Google, uses the “Just Like Me” reflection during negotiations as a reminder that both parties want to walk away happy. It considers:

  • This person has beliefs, perspectives, and opinions, just like me.
  • This person has hopes, anxieties, and vulnerabilities, just like me.
  • This person has friends, family, and perhaps children who love them, just like me.
  • This person wants to feel respected, appreciated, and competent, just like me.
  • This person wishes for peace, joy, and happiness, just like me.

Lead by Example

Setting the norms starts with anyone in a position of responsibility, from senior management to team leads.

Several behaviours are helpful to show team members that they are listened to and valued:

  • Be engaged in meetings by making eye contact and staying off your phone and laptop.
  • Ask for upward feedback to show that you welcome their input and respect their opinion. This includes asking how they’d like to be treated regarding how regularly you check in, the style of communication used and which channels to use for feedback.
  • Be open minded with opinions that are different to your own and show appreciation for others’ ideas.
  • Encourage your team to challenge your own opinions and ideas.
  • Actively listen to what staff have to say and ask questions to make sure you understand their ideas and opinions.
  • Involve your team in decision making by asking for your team’s input and feedback. Once the decision has been made, explain how their suggestions influenced the decision.

It’s also really important to allay the fears of negative consequences when team members take risks. Leadership is important in this regard: own up to your mistakes and demonstrate that they sometimes occur. Avoid blame and penalties for mistakes, but certainly learn from them.

Measure Psychological Safety

Measuring psychological safety provides vital feedback. Leaders should ask employees how safe they feel and whether the perception of penalties.

Leaders should also engage staff on how they think the psychological safety of the team can be increased.


Creating a psychologically safe environment in the workplace can help staff achieve their potential and contribute more to the team. Psychological safety is the foundation for other elements of high performing teams.

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