Dr Timothy Clark’s book, ‘The Four Stages of Psychological Safety’ sums up the ground rules of what signifies psychologically safe conditions for employees at workplaces. These are conditions in which one feels included, safe to learn, safe to contribute, and safe to challenge the status quo, all without any fear of embarrassment or punishment in any way.
A common question might be why is psychological safety so important in the workplace? There are enough research and evidence to emphasise the fact that workplaces or teams that are psychologically safe are some of the highest-performing ones.
A human brain cannot function at its best under the conditions of fear of rejection or criticism. This can slowly lead to the shutting down of perspective, analytical reasoning, and strategic thinking functions of the brain, which are the cornerstones of the modern work environment. The ability to take risks and take on new challenges helps one think creatively and increases cognitive abilities. But these virtues bloom only in a calm and composed mind.
Psychological safety as a term has gained huge momentum, considering the challenging work environment of today, which cannot be truer in the current scenario of the global pandemic affecting every single sector and handicapping the economy. With increasing Work From Home jobs and the slow unlocking of physical workplaces, psychological safety cannot be more relevant than now!
How to Reinforce Psychological Safety in Workplaces?
Here are a few ways to positively reinforce psychological safety at workplaces:
Nothing complements human psychology better than the people around trying to stay as empathetic as possible. Everybody has a certain set of needs which are largely universal such as respect, social status, autonomy, and competence. If one recognises these deeper needs, one can expect to elicit the most natural response in the form of trust and positive behaviour.
Google’s Paul Santagata used exactly this approach called “Just Like Me” to explain to his team that no matter how argumentative the other party seems, they are just like them and looking for a win-win outcome.
The other person has beliefs, hopes, anxieties, vulnerabilities, opinions, and perspectives, etc. just like anybody else. Acknowledging this fact helps one understand the concept of psychological safety much better, as one accepts others as human beings just like them.
Indulging in blame games has never really helped anyone. If anything, it is a major contributor to escalated conflict situations. Blaming someone leads them towards defensiveness and eventually to disengagement. Instead, one should try being curious about the other’s affairs in a manner that displays genuine interest.
For example, state an observation about the employee’s problematic behaviour using factual and neutral language, explore the reasons behind the behaviour, and finally engage the employee in zeroing-down on a solution. Here’s how this can possibly play out “I was going through the performance report and could not help but notice the steep decline in your performance in the last quarter of the year. I understand there would be a genuine reason for this and I would love to sit and work through it with you. Please let me know how I could support you with this.”
According to statistics, soft skills will be considered power skills in 2020, therefore, managers must hone their soft skills and develop better ways to communicate problems, rather than simply shifting blame.
Oftentimes, the senior-most managers responsible for formulating policies and guidelines are unaware of specific challenges that may be hampering their employees’ sense of well-being. To combat this, it is imperative to enquire into the reasons behind the same and figure out solutions.
Use mechanisms that highlight employee experience information such as engagement surveys, workplace climate surveys, and focus groups to arrive at the factors contributing to your employees feeling psychologically unsafe at work and address them.
According to a study by ClearCompany, 68% of employees say training and development is the company’s most important policy.It is not possible to foster an atmosphere of learning and innovation without giving employees the leeway to make mistakes. It is important to allow them to demonstrate vulnerability by making mistakes and being okay doing so. Click To Tweet
When managers encourage their teams to learn from their mistakes, they give their employees the freedom to take initiatives and discover innovative ways of dealing with problems. Build a culture around taking risks, where everybody’s ideas are encouraged and people can be vulnerable without any penalty.
When humans are criticised or rejected, their brains activate ‘fight or flight’ reactions, which can affect their self-esteem. In order to avoid feeling so, most people would want to minimise putting themselves in a situation that seems threatening. Therefore, psychological safety can never exist in a workplace where there is a fear of being wrong.
A Harvard Business Review study revealed that as much as 58% of people trust strangers more than their own boss! The whopping number indicates the sheer absence of psychological safety that employees experience at office.
Managers need to know that employees will never feel safe speaking up where they are negatively judged for making errors. Instead, it is necessary to think and respond in a positive manner. If there is a mistake, recognise it, rectify it, learn from it, and move on.
Interpersonal trust and mutual respect are two major aspects of psychological safety and a positive approach goes a long way in building the same.
Feeling valued and included is a basic psychological need that can be fulfilled by including employees in the decision-making process.
According to Gallup, as much as 70% of the workforce is actively disengaged at work, making it the number one priority of companies to think innovative ways to deal with this.
This can be accomplished by asking for their thoughts, inputs, and feedback. Managers must actually consider their inputs and arrive at a decision that benefits the greater good. Once a decision has been reached, they can explain the reasoning behind the same and how employee inputs were valuable in the whole process.
Even if the decision is not supported by a few, most employees will appreciate the honest and transparent way which was used to arrive at the decision, promoting a sense of psychological safety in the long run.
Measuring Psychological Safety
Addressing psychological safety issues starts with recognising their causes and symptoms. However, how do you determine these factors in the first place? In order to dig deep, prepare a survey that asks some mind-stirring questions about workplaces, answers to which will reflect the level of psychological safety.
Here are a few sample responses that you might receive:
- It is difficult to ask for help from other members of the organisation.
- If I make a mistake, it is often held against me.
- I feel hesitant to express what I really feel about different issues.
- People think twice before bringing up any issue or problem that they may be facing.
- I feel people here value my efforts and appreciate my unique skills and talents.
- Almost everyone in the organisation understands the importance of team-work and offers help when needed.
A negative response to the first four questions and a positive response to the last two questions indicates strong psychological safety and vice versa.
Once the data from the above survey is gathered, it becomes much easier to bring about improvements.
Psychological safety seems like a tough nut to crack but is quite simple at its core. Workplaces that foster a positive environment filled with trust, mutual respect, confidence in others’ abilities, and good work ethics will always be a safe haven for the employees.