Psychological Safety at Work: Signs, Benefits, and What to Avoid –

Do you feel enthusiastic and comfortable speaking up and taking risks at work? If so, you’re likely perceiving psychological safety.
At its core, psychological safety refers to a shared belief that expressing your ideas and concerns, making mistakes, and bringing your authentic self to work won’t be met with punishment, rejection, or disdain.
The concept was coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson in 1999 and popularized by Google in 2015.
If the notion of psychological safety sounds like something you need to develop yourself, it’s not quite so.
Psych safety isn’t about personal confidence or assertiveness. Rather, creating psychological safety at work is a collective effort that must be fueled and modeled by all, particularly leadership.
One of the main signs that you’re not feeling psychologically safe in your workplace is if you often bite your tongue during meetings despite having something to say.
Katherine Kirkinis, PhD, a specialist in career counseling and career assessment in New York City, explains that psychological safety leads you to “feel safe enough to bring up problems or tough issues, to share a new idea, to ask for help, and celebrate diversity.”
In this context, workplace silence isn’t about your personality or how outspoken or quiet you tend to be in general.
“When employees fear rejection or that their thoughts and ideas aren’t valued, they’ll keep their mouths shut,” Kirkinis says.
Many possible team dynamics may lead you to feel this way, but here are 17 potential signs of low psychological safety:
“The worst part about working in a psychologically unsafe workplace is that great ideas never get shared,” says Kirkinis.
Creating a psychologically safe climate at work means you allow others to be themselves and actively participate in conversations and decision making processes. But this doesn’t mean psychological safety is:
The benefits of working in a psychologically safe climate are both personal and organizational.
Research from 2020 shows that when employees perceive psychological safety in the workplace, they tend to:
In turn, feeling and acting this way increases work engagement.
Work engagement refers to a state of mind that makes you feel more energetic, committed, and absorbed by your work. According to a 2017 Gallup survey, only 33% of U.S. employees are engaged at work.
Work engagement, then, can be an indirect outcome of psychological safety. And work engagement often means lower turnovers and higher productivity.
“No one wants to work in an environment where they don’t feel safe taking risks or being different,” says Kirkinis.
Learning is another benefit of psychological safety.
When people ask questions, share mistakes, and have the chance to listen to different perspectives, they’re more likely to learn the lessons. This translates into company innovation, growth, and personal development.
Other benefits of psychological safety include:
The role leadership has in developing psychological safety at work is essential.
Organizational support is directly linked to employees’ well-being and productivity.
Janette Rodriguez, PsyD, a licensed psychologist in Davie, Florida, says it’s particularly important that leaders:
“Combining modeling with explicit statements supporting psychological safety can be incredibly powerful,” says Rodriguez.
Providing space and voice to everyone on the team can also help improve psychological safety. Specifically, consider openly acknowledging people’s contributions to the team.
“Be specific about who did what and their impact,” advises Rodriguez. “Express appreciation for whatever talent or skill the person used to create the positive result.”
Consider these other tips to strengthen psychological safety in your teams:
“Your team will know you’re open to hearing about mishaps, that it’s OK to point them out or ask questions, and that you’re willing to apologize and do better,” says Rodriguez. “It also models ways for them to do the same.”
When requesting feedback, Rodriguez says using “what” instead of “if” may work better. “Assume there’s feedback to be given,” she adds.
Rodriguez also recommends using a multimethod approach.
“Incorporate anonymous but quick questionnaires, ” she recommends. “In a virtual environment, you can leverage tools such as polls and the hand-raise button.”
Kirkinis says acknowledgment is also key, particularly in virtual or hybrid work environments.
“If a team member says something but then gets cut off by a frozen screen, or talked over by someone else, make sure that the group returns to them,” she says.
Acting in the same way with every direct report may help them feel safe and that they can trust you.
Encouraging everyone to openly acknowledge each other in the team, known as social recognition, also has a positive impact.
Social recognition is essential to psychological safety and business success. It lets everyone know they’re noticed and valued, boosts productivity, and strengthens work relationships.
Building psychological safety is everyone’s task. Kirkinis recommends considering these three tips to contribute to a psychologically safe and inclusive culture:
Also, try to avoid these behaviors that may decrease psychological safety on your team:
In sum, psychological safety is believing you’re safe and included on your team. What can you do regularly to help others in your team feel this way?
Last medically reviewed on May 17, 2022
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