How to Build Psychological Safety In The Workplace
Creating psychological safety at work, in your team or in your organisation may seem like a very daunting task, and it can be hard to know where to start.
Here are ten things you can do right now that will help to create psychological safety at work, and reap significant benefits for you, the team, and organisation. This is particularly crucial if you are embarking on an organisational change or digital transformation journey. In order for any transformation to succeed, everyone in the organisation must feel included and psychologically safe to be part of the transformation.
If you can do so, try measuring psychological safety first, because the data from that survey will really help to prioritise some of these actions and behaviours below.
Every workplace is different, so you may need to focus on some of the points below more than others. Ultimately however, all of these are important in creating and maintaining psychological safety at work. Download our Tool Kit to access great resources and templates to build psychological safety in your teams.
1. Make sure everyone knows what to do.
This is about management, structure and clarity. Ensure that people know what to do when they sit at their desk in the morning (or whenever and wherever they start work). A significant component of this is properly managing the flow of work to team members. Uncontrolled, unpredictable flow of work is one of the biggest antipatterns to performance. Whether you use to-do lists, project plans, agile backlogs, kanban boards or post-it notes, make sure that team members understand what’s important. And of course what you ask of them must be achievable!
Team members must know what their priorities are. Through prioritisation, people know what to do first. We all only have so much time in a day, so our workload effectively is the same for any given day – it’s trying to decide the order in which we do things that causes most stress. Overloading team members’ cognitive load can severely impact psychological safety.
It’s really important for everyone on the team to understand what “good” and “finished” looks like. Without a common understanding of these terms, some work is left unfinished according to some team members, while others consider it complete.
A fundamental aspect of psychological safety is knowing what you’re supposed to be doing and that you’re doing it right. And if there is any uncertainty, that you won’t be punished for doing what you think is the right thing to do. W E Deming introduced this concept in point 10, along other crucial points, in his 14 Points for Management.
Getting this task management and prioritisation is critical in particular for team members who are working remotely.
2. Break the “Golden Rule”
Don’t treat other people the way you want to be treated – they’re not you. As George Bernard Shaw said, “Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.”
An effective leader gets to know their team members on a deep and personal level, and recognises that people change over time. Use this knowledge to work with your team members in the way they prefer. It’s perfectly ok to ask your team members how they like to be “managed”, or ask them to write a “personal charter” or “personal README file“. Some people prefer frequent and short meetings with their leader, whilst others may prefer longer sessions less frequently. Some people prefer to work intensely for short periods, whilst others may work more steadily over longer periods.
Recognise that there is no “right” way – but there are individual preferences and strengths. Work with them and maximise them, and resist the temptation to assume that your preference is the “right” one.
3. Be inclusive in decision making
Allow teams to contribute to decisions that affect them. Consider the premise “Nothing ABOUT me, WITHOUT me.” This doesn’t mean that every decision requires consensus, simply that people must feel that their voice has been heard and considered.
Particularly in remote and distributed teams, it’s easy to miss someone dis-engaging from the team or conversation. Everyone in the team needs to contribute – indeed “contributor safety” is the third stage of psychological safety. Be actively inclusive. Invite participation by simply asking questions. By asking, for example, “What do you think? What views do you have on this? What are we missing? I see you look pensive; what’s on your mind?” a leader or colleague creates a space for all voices to be heard.
If you’re not actively being inclusive, it’s very possible you’re being passively exclusive. Particularly in remote video calls, but also in “normal” meetings, many people can be reticent to speak up for fear of speaking over someone else, embarrassing themselves, or how they come across.
4. Define team values and behaviours
Team members must know what’s expected of them, and what the common values held by the team are. It’s important to translate values, such as “commitment”, into behaviours, such as “following through on promises”. This ensures that a common set of expectations is shared across the team, and team members can depend on and trust each other.
By running a “values and behaviours” workshop or similar, and distilling the values that are held most dear by the team, behaviour boundaries are agreed, team cohesion improves, and the values of the team align with those of the organisation.
5. Hold blameless retrospectives and incident reviews
Take every opportunity to examine how to improve individually and as a team. That often means holding retrospectives, or “post mortems”, after an incident or failure. These are intended to find any systemic root causes. Be sure to replace blame with curiosity – if a mistake by a team member is discovered or admitted, thank them for their honesty, and find ways to prevent it happening or mitigate the impact of it. If someone is blamed for a mistake, psychological safety of the whole team will suffer and subsequent retrospectives will be far less successful.
“Every incident is a learning opportunity” – John Allspaw.
Try running retrospectives after big successes too – it’s just as important to find out the causes of success, as it is for failure. You could even regularly schedule them so that they become habitual and easy.
6. Admit mistakes
One of the key points of psychological safety is about being able to admit mistakes and be vulnerable. As a leader, it’s important to model this behaviour by doing so yourself. By admitting fault, you’re not only modelling and making it acceptable for team members to admit mistakes, but if they admire you as a strong leader, they’ll actually want to think of mistakes that they can admit to in order to emulate your behaviour.
Pro-active admission of mistakes can result in very high psychological safety and a great boost to performance through continual improvement.
7. Invite feedback (or advice!)
High performance and psychological safety both require that team members are able to provide and take on feedback, and use it to improve.
As a leader, you must be open to feedback from your team members and peers. However, it’s also necessary to remember that feedback must be constructive, positive, contextual, and delivered with good intent. Reframing “feedback” as “advice” is a good first step.
Discuss with your team members how feedback (advice) should be provided, and state explicitly that not all feedback has to be taken on or acted upon, since the person providing it only sees the external “you” – not the real you.
Above all else, act with kindness and ensure that people know that feedback must benefit the person receiving it.
8. Show vulnerability and emotion
Showing vulnerability and emotion is a fundamental aspect of psychological safety. As a leader, it is unfair to expect your team members to show vulnerability and emotion if you do not do so yourself.
This doesn’t mean breaking down in tears (unless you feel like doing so), but it does mean being honest about struggles and challenges that you’re facing, and allowing yourself to demonstrate emotion. When team members understand that it’s safe to show emotion and vulnerability, they will begin to feel able to do so themselves, increasing psychological safety and facilitating more open and honest discussions within the team, which will drive performance even higher.
9. Be firm with negative behaviours
Whilst it’s important to assume the best of everyone on the team, sometimes team members may behave in ways that are detrimental to the team culture, dynamic, or organisation’s performance, intentionally or not.
Anything from speaking over someone in a meeting, turning up late, or actively bullying can severely damage the psychological safety in a team.
Be firm with these behaviours and make your stance and actions on these behaviours clear and explicit to the entire team. When the team know that they are protected from negative behaviours, not only are boundaries more clearly understood, but they will all feel psychologically safe that they are not at risk from being a victim of those kinds of behaviours.
10. Provide financial and job security
It’s possible that you may not have control over these factors in the workplace. Even if you don’t, it’s important to be aware of how they impact psychological safety.
Financial security allows people to focus. Through not being overly worried about finances, whether it’s how they’re going to pay the rent, or whether they can afford a holiday this year, people can focus on delivering great value to the organisation.
Job security allows people to take risks. Taking risks is a core part, and a core benefit, of psychological safety, since innovation is largely a result of intelligent risk taking. By combining increased focus and intelligent risk taking, psychological safety is improved and innovation will increase.
11. Be patient!
An additional but important final point. This takes time. Building and maintaining psychological safety doesn’t happen overnight. Teams move through Tuckman’s forming-storming-norming-performing stages as well as the four stages of psychological safety (inclusion, learning, contributing, challenging), and may move back and forth through those phases over time as well, particularly as things change inside and outside the team, or members join or leave.
It’s a long process, with many ups and downs, and twists and turns. You will sometimes find yourself ahead, and sometimes behind. The road is long, and maybe never ends, but it will be fun and rewarding!
For a complete, in-depth tool kit to help you build psychological safety in your workplace, download the psychological safety action pack now.
Download this piece as a pdf: Psychological Safety At Work