Psychological Safety

What is Psychological Safety?

Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. It can be defined as ‘being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career’ (Edmondson, 2014).

Why is Psychological Safety Important?

While well-established parameters exist for defining the importance of physical safety as it relates to being socially acceptable, harmful or helpful, the same can’t be said for psychological safety.

In Australia, specifically, the lack of attention devoted to psychological safety is reflected in concerning statistics. The Australian Workplace Psychological Safety Survey revealed that merely 23% of lower-income employees and 45% of higher-income employees felt they were working in a psychologically safe environment for taking risks.

Thanks to recent advances in neuroscience, we are now beginning to understand the importance and impact of psychological safety, not only within teams but also for our own health and well-being.

For example, it has been demonstrated that the same area of the brain that deals with physical pain also manages emotional pain and rejection. It turns out that a ‘hit’ to our psychological safety (through bullying or social rejection) can have a stronger impact on that brain region than if we were punched in the face.

When our psychological safety is threatened, our brain is triggered into a stress response, which compromises our cognitive abilities. In this state, our higher, logical brain goes offline, affecting our ability to think, be creative, make decisions and regulate our emotions.

Why is Psychological Safety Necessary for a Competitive Advantage?

Twenty-first-century success depends on another system. The broaden-and-build mode of positive emotion allows us to solve complex problems and foster cooperative relationships. 

Providing safe and healthy work conditions benefits all team members and minimises the risk or exacerbation of mental illness in the workplace.

How is Psychological Safety Relevant in Teams?

In 2015, Google published the results of Project Aristotle, which was an in-depth study to find the factors common to a high-performing team.

Their research on hundreds of teams at Google showed that psychological safety within the team was a critical factor to success.

Essentially, they showed that teams with psychologically safe environments had employees who were:

  • Trusting
  • Less likely to leave
  • More likely to harness the power of diversity
  • Overall more successful

How do You Build Psychological Safety?

Based on neuroscience research, the S.A.F.E.T.Y.TM Model describes the 5 important social drivers of human behaviour:

  • Security
  • Autonomy
  • Fairness
  • Esteem
  • Trust

By taking the S.A.F.E.T.Y.TM assessment and debriefing the results, we can begin to increase self-awareness of our own biases and triggers, and appreciate different perspectives. As a result, it can help us manage our own psychological safety, as well as that of those around us.

The S.A.F.E.T.Y.TM Model cuts to the heart of what creates most of our challenges, fears and stress by helping us understand what drives us in social settings and why we are driven in this manner.

In turn, it enables us to generate practical solutions in order to build and maintain psychological safety for ourselves and others.

What Does Implementation Look Like?

We provide a range of offerings, including workshops, assessments and coaching to help individuals, teams and organisations:

  • Build and nurture psychological safety
  • Identify and manage unconscious biases and triggers
  • Understand and overcome the brain-challenges of diversity and inclusion
  • Manage stress and cultivate resilience
  • Build high-performing teams and leaders

Companies that create a sense of psychological safety within their teams are able to experience higher levels of engagement, increased motivation to handle complex obstacles, greater learning and development opportunities and improved performance.

A psychologically safe workplace is a win-win for both companies and its employees. It helps to reduce turnover and cost and creates a productive environment where people are happy to work.

How to Create a Psychologically Safe Work Environment:

Inspire collaboration and collective learning

When team members encounter difficulties performing certain tasks and need guidance on ‘how’ to proceed, it can lead to overwhelm and stress, especially if they are experiencing excessive workload. In these situations, leaders need to be accessible and approachable to create a sense of safety and a genuine belief that ‘we are in this together’.

Empower your team

Leaders need to delegate as much of their authority as possible and allow their team members to rise and thrive to the occasion. Delegating will empower the team to make decisions for themselves rather than wait to be told. It will also help them stretch into that area of expertise, thus making the team feeling more accountable towards their responsibilities and perform accordingly.

Show them you are human

As a leader, standing in your truth creates compassion, respect and, most importantly, connection – the number one human need. Being vulnerable, admitting you don’t have all the answers and that you can’t do it on your own is not only okay, but it’s also encouraged in an organisational context. It will increase trust and team participation, creating a level of autonomy because team members are there to help achieve the outcome.

Treat failures as opportunities to learn and grow

Framing failure as a learning opportunity removes any barriers of blame and opens the doors to curiosity. Accusation and criticism lead to conflict, defensiveness and disengagement. By adopting a curious mindset culture instead of a blame culture, open conversations take place because leaders are listening to understand. Leaders who embrace an inquiry recognise the information gaps, thus making it safe for others to speak up.

Receive feedback with grace

Leaders need to be open to receiving feedback just as much as providing it. The more leaders are approachable, the more willing team members will be to open up and discuss their concerns. Giving feedback is key to growth and performance improvement because feedback drives organisational culture and behaviour.

Provide recognition, reward and respect

Recognition goes a long way in motivating team members. When individuals feel valued and appreciated, they go the extra mile to deliver on a consistent basis. Understanding basic human needs such as respect, capability, social status and autonomy will naturally elicit trust. The importance of maintaining a good work-life balance with flexible hours will help boost job satisfaction and productivity.

Establish boundaries, accountability and responsibility

Boundaries provide the freedom for team members to raise critical issues without fear of appearing incompetent, negative or ignorant. A perceived ‘loss’ in accountability or misunderstanding boundaries triggers attempts to re-establish fairness through competition, criticism or disengagement.

The Benefits of Psychological Safety:

Although the benefits of psychological safety are extensive, some of the most notable advantages include:

  • Increased loyalty towards an organisation, team and leaders
  • Satisfied, valued and happy team members
  • Feeling heard and having a voice
  • Heightened effectiveness, focus and productivity
  • Healthy interpersonal relationships
  • Collaboration towards achieving company goals
  • Inclusion because team members’ opinions matter
  • Authorisation to make decisions in team members’ areas of expertise
  • Increased motivation and inspiration
  • Positive work environment and culture
  • Mental well-being of team members
  • Remarkable workplace satisfaction
  • Higher commitment towards common goals

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