Psychological safety in the workplace nurtures innovation

Psychological safety ensures you give your best at work. (rawpixel.com pic)

How psychologically safe is your workplace? What do you think about staff making mistakes? And what is your view on employees being able to express their ideas?

Do you believe mistakes are a good thing or are they to be avoided at all costs? Do you really listen to your employees or do you sweep their ideas under the carpet?

How psychologically safe employees feel when they are at work has implications for innovation, team interactions, productivity and ultimately business success.

What is psychological safety?

Research has found that companies with a trusting workplace performed better. Psychological safety is about candour, being direct, taking risks, being willing to say, “I screwed that up.” Being willing to ask for help when you’re in over your head.’

Feeling safe, secure and being able to work without the fear of negative consequences, even when you make a mistake, relies on feeling psychologically safe. It means people are comfortable being themselves.

In psychologically safe workplaces, diversity is respected and team members respect each other and feel accepted. The feeling is like taking a leap and knowing you’ll be caught.

Why psychological safety in the workplace is important

Humiliation, blame, criticism and bullying create workplaces where employees are filled with fear. This kind of psychologically unsafe environment doesn’t get the best out of people.

You are too busy watching your own back and frightened of putting a foot wrong to make suggestions and help each other out. You dare not share ideas for fear of being shut down.

When you experience a lack of trust, respect or conflict you feel stressed and your brain triggers hormones to support a fight-or-flight response.

Continually being in that state is bad for your health. This state also has a negative impact on your ability to think strategically. It stifles creativity and teamwork, and that isn’t good for business. A psychologically safe workplace is the opposite.

In an environment where you are encouraged to understand each other’s points of view, understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses, support each other, and feel confident to make suggestions and offer ideas, teams flourish.

Mistakes (essential for innovation) are made, chewed over and learned from. Perhaps the biggest study supporting the importance of psychological safety in the workplace is Google’s project Aristotle, which focused on how to build the perfect team.

The study reviewed half a century of academic studies on how teams worked and looked at hundreds of Google’s own teams to try and unlock the key as to why some teams soared and others failed.

Google’s research found that particular norms, such as clear goals and a culture of dependability, were vital for team success. It found that psychological safety was critical to making a team work.

How to foster psychological safety at work

It takes effort and hard work to build a trusting culture.

1. Encourage radical candour

Radical candour is a new management philosophy based on two approaches – caring personally and challenging directly.

According to the radical candour framework, damaging behaviours include ruinous empathy, manipulative insincerity, and obnoxious aggression.

Ruinous empathy describes what happens when you care but don’t challenge or provide specific feedback. It happens when you are too worried about hurting others feelings.

Manipulative insincerity describes behaviour that is back-stabbing, passive-aggressive or two-faced.

Obnoxious aggression is brutal honesty without any regard for your feelings, or praise that is poorly delivered and insincere.

Radical candour is based on a culture of feedback. It is about being honest, but delivering feedback with respect and care.

2. Promote respect

You don’t always agree with each other, but discussion is vitally important in business. Encouraging mutual respect helps to improve communication and reduce workplace conflict and stress.

Reducing pettiness in the workplace and encouraging respect helps to build psychological safety. The best way to promote respect at work is to ‘walk the walk’.

3. Welcome curiosity

Encouraging you to be curious and ask questions is where real learning happens.

Curiosity is vital to business performance. Ask for feedback from employees and encourage them to ask questions. Start by asking: ‘What can you do better?’

4. Acknowledge ideas and the sharing of mistakes

Things do not always go to plan and making mistakes does not mean you are a failure. Mistakes offer helpful learning and are often the source of major innovations in business.

In psychologically safe environments, you feel you can make a mistake and won’t be penalised for it.

A manager promoting psychological safety will always state problems as observational facts in neutral language and engage with the team to explore the problem, ask for solutions and offer support.

Encourage your team to share and discuss problems, errors and failures, and to ask for help.

Dennis Relojo-Howell is the world’s first blog psychologist and founder of Psychreg. As an international mental health advocate, he speaks at various conferences around the world and believes that everyone experiencing a mental health problem deserves both support and respect.