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An employer talks to a group of employees about psychological safety at work. Below is an illustrated tree.

March 22, 2023 • read

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How employers can create a culture of psychological safety

In 2015, Google’s People Operations team embarked on a mission to answer a very simple question: What makes a team at Google effective?

After months of rigorous research, including more than 200 interviews, the team discovered something surprising: What mattered was less about who was on the team, and more about how the team interacted with each other. When it came to performance, the level of education of the different team members, their work ethic, or diversity within the team all mattered less than the team’s ability to create a sense of psychological safety.

Beyond performance and employee success, improving psychological safety for employees has many additional benefits. An atmosphere of emotional well-being can nurture creativity, improve team engagement, and cultivate a sense of belonging among employees.

A People Management report also demonstrated that when team members feel like they work in a secure and supportive work environment and feel comfortable being vulnerable, they’re less likely to leave, which can reduce turnover.

But what exactly is psychological safety? And what can leaders do to foster it within their organization? Here are a handful of ideas to help you get started and create a productive work environment.

What’s psychological safety at work?

The term “psychological safety” was coined by author Amy Edmondson in her book The Fearless Organization. She defines psychological safety in the workplace as a “climate where people feel safe enough to take interpersonal risks by speaking up and sharing concerns, questions, or ideas.”

In their day-to-day lives, many employees feel perfectly comfortable expressing themselves and their likes and dislikes, or explaining why they feel something is a bad idea. At work, these same individuals may fear looking bad if they propose an idea their manager dislikes or refrain from sharing their objections when they don’t agree with the general direction of a project.

This is what communications researchers refer to as “the spiral of silence.” If an employee believes their opinion will be unpopular or is unlikely to be well received, it may discourage them from sharing it. In the long term, this creates an overly positive work culture in which dissenting opinions are left unspoken and employees feel it’s better to hold back rather than freely share thoughts and ideas.

The cost of silence

An organizational culture of passivity and silence can lead to critical mistakes. For example, in November 2022, the luxury fashion brand Balenciaga received almost-instant backlash for its new series of ads, some of which featured children holding teddy bears dressed in provocative clothing.

The spiral of silence most likely played a role in this debacle: many company employees probably saw the ads at various stages of the process, but simply decided not to say anything.

So how can leaders better promote dialogue? The answer, of course, is psychological safety at work, which can act as an effective countermeasure to this problem. Instead of punishing employees for expressing dissenting opinions, leaders can use their emotional intelligence and reward them for having the courage to share their thoughts, even if it means going against the grain.

The four stages of psychological safety

Dr. Timothy Clark, author of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, believes that psychological safety develops over time in four distinct stages. These are:

  • Stage 1 – Inclusion safety: In this first stage, employees feel included. They believe it is safe for them to be themselves, even if they have quirks or strong individual traits. Their differences are welcomed.
  • Stage 2 – Learner safety : In this stage, employees feel it’s safe for them to learn and ask questions. It’s even safe to make mistakes.
  • Stage 3 – Contributor safety: At this point, employees feel it’s safe for them to make a valuable contribution using their entire arsenal of skills, not just what’s expected of them.
  • Stage 4 – Challenger safety: In the final stage, employees feel safe challenging the status quo. If there’s an opportunity for improvement, they don’t hesitate voicing their concerns.

Sadly, many teams never reach the fourth stage – some barely reach the second. So how can leaders reap the benefits of team psychological safety? Here are a few suggestions to help you foster a strong company culture of trust and openness.

1 – Lead by example

Some company cultures reward employees for being friendly and agreeable, and not disagreeing too much.

While this makes dealing with conflicts easier, it also creates the illusion of harmony within the organization. In the long run, this can be damaging and counter-productive as companies end up prioritizing docility over making sound business decisions. Flawed ideas go unchallenged and creativity is minimized.

To build a different workplace, leaders should start by modeling themselves the desired behaviours to provide examples of psychological safety. This may mean having to acknowledge the limit of their own knowledge, showcasing ​​conflict management skills, increasing employee recognition, demonstrating comfort with failure, gracefully forgiving an employee for a well-intentioned mistake, and rewarding team members for innovative thinking, even if it doesn’t lead to success.

By leading with empathy instead of pride and admitting their own mistakes, struggles, doubts, and preferences, leaders can create room for employees to do the same. In the long run, this can help create a culture of appreciation.

2 – Invite input from all team members

In their report Creating Psychological Safety in Teams, the United States’ Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) highlights a few simple strategies to help leaders foster a sense of psychological security in the workplace. These include inviting input from all employees, encouraging everyone to contribute, and promoting active listening.

Simply put, encouraging everyone to share their thoughts can allow leaders to tap into the collective wisdom of their team. In an article from their blog, Femininity, a leading diversity and inclusion consulting firm, notes that psychological safety “pushes us to create products and services that are open to critique, making them more effective.”

Some employees may feel reluctant to speak up in group settings, so using words like “Let’s go around the room and hear what everyone thinks” or “I’d love to hear if there are any dissenting opinions out there” can go a long way in creating a secure environment for employees to voice their thoughts.

Leaders can also create opportunities for team members to speak up. For example, when a new project is in development, it might be helpful to ask one member of the team to play the role of devil’s advocate. This employee would be tasked with looking for flaws in the team’s approach or highlighting issues that aren’t being sufficiently discussed.

3 – Prioritize constructive feedback

While it’s important to create space for employees to voice their concerns, that doesn’t mean team members should feel ridiculed or humiliated when someone else expresses doubts about an idea they proposed. When it’s delivered poorly, harmful, toxic criticism can decrease psychological safety and further the cycle of silence and passivity.

How employees communicate criticism matters, and leaders can establish good communication hygiene by regularly providing constructive feedback to employees in a polite manner, and being open to receiving some in return. When expressing doubts about a strategy or idea, it may be helpful to first mention some of its positive traits before diving into potential areas of improvement.

Instead of feeling like a personal attack, criticism should always feel like it comes from a place of curiosity and a desire to continue to improve and deliver even higher-quality work.

4 – Share ownership across teams and maximize collaboration

While companies like to emphasize cooperation and teamwork across their entire organization, in practice, silos can form as teams begin working more and more in isolation.

When members of different teams are required to collaborate, communication issues arise. Over time, both teams feel misunderstood by the other, which reduces trust and psychological safety, and increases finger-pointing and blame-shifting.

For projects to succeed, there must be a sense of shared ownership and collaboration across the entire organization, not just one team. To help employees work better with members of other departments, leaders should proactively look for ways to build bridges with engineering, sales, and other teams so that collaboration and conflict management across different groups feels smooth and natural.

5 – Build trust through transparency

Whether it’s performance feedback, internal company dynamics, or business or culture changes, being transparent and making a point to provide clarity can go a long way towards building trust and reducing unnecessary anxiety. Organizations in Canada looking to foster psychological safety in the workplace should know that trust is the heart of psychological safety, and transparency can be a crucial tool to help leaders gain trust.

How Maple can help your organization

Offering benefits related to mental well-being is a great way to show that mental health matters for your organization.

Providing personalized compassionate support through employee benefits allows team members to feel supported and can help normalize discussions around mental health in the workplace. This is another initiative that can build trust, facilitate ​​change management, and contribute to a work culture of psychological safety.

For many employees, being able to access mental health support through their employee benefits greatly improves their ability to receive care. A 2022 study by the Mental Health Commission of Canada showed that 72% of respondents who had access to psychological services through employee benefits reported they were able to get timely access to a mental health provider and noted improvements in their problem. When employees had access to other mental well-being services that weren’t mental health therapy, only 33% reported improvements.

Offering Maple as an employee benefit allows employees to connect with Canadian-licensed mental health therapists by appointment or on demand, in 12 hours or less. We also provide access to clinically-validated wellness check-ins and a complete resource library stocked with articles, videos, and more to help employees learn more about self-care on their own terms.

Simply put, offering mental health support through Maple makes it much easier for employees to get the support they need, when they need it.

If you’d like to speak with a member of our team about supporting employees with their health and well-being or how to bring your employee benefits to the next level, please reach out. We’d be happy to share our insights with you as Canada’s leading virtual care platform.

This blog was developed by our team and reviewed by a medical professional.

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