At Corporate Culture, we are currently working with a number of organisations on health and safety projects. These range from developing campaigns around workplace safety for mass audiences, safety and behaviours in relation to Covid-19, and quite discreet behavioural interventions within the roles of employees who work in high-risk areas.

It is all great stuff, and it made me start to think about the role I play at the company and my interactions with colleagues and clients with whom I work in the context of safety. I work in an office environment so my priority for colleagues is their psychological safety and the creation of space in the workplace where they feel safe to challenge and contribute.

Create a safe space

The generally accepted definition of psychological safety is the position where people feel safe and comfortable being themselves in the workplace. They feel safe to challenge, to speak up, to air their views (to leaders at all levels), make mistakes, etc. without the worry that they might feel humiliated, made to feel embarrassed or, in the worst-case scenario, feel that they are being punished in some way.

It’s critical for organisations to develop psychological safety, as its absence can have major repercussions for businesses; they lose the benefit of diversity of thought and hence innovation. In addition, when colleagues do not feel comfortable speaking up about initiatives or processes that are not working as they should, the organisation is ill equipped to prevent failure, whether that be to systems and processes. Such failures can even put employees and others at real risk.

My experience of running employee surveys for over 25 years tells me that, on average, around 70% of employees feel that their opinions count at work, while the other 30% do not feel comfortable speaking up, are worried about rejection, or are simply afraid to share their thoughts and concerns. This leaves nearly a third of employees who feel unable to participate fully in their own organisation. Simon Sinek, in his book ‘Leaders Eat Last’, talks about creating a “circle of safety” that reduces the threats felt by people within organisations. This sense of safety ultimately this allows people to be themselves and operate freely. It also frees up leaders to focus their time on other issues.

Build belonging

So where do we begin in creating psychological safety?

It starts with a feeling and sense of belonging. Belonging is a basic human need which must be met before individuals feel accepted. Once accepted, they feel able to reach their full potential. The journey that people go through to feel accepted is unique to the individual, but the broad stages include:

  • Being yourself – the feeling that you can be yourself and you are accepted for who you are, including your attributes and your personal characteristics.
  • Learning – individuals feel safe to participate in the learning process by asking questions, making mistakes, giving and receiving feedback and, critically, trying new things in an effort to innovate.
  • Contribution – individuals feel that they can make a difference by contributing to the discussion, or with suggestions for improvements.
  • Challenge – individuals feel safe in speaking up and challenging the status quo.

The journey isn’t the same for all employees, as a confident, experienced, knowledgeable leader might be secure enough in themselves from the moment they arrive in an organisation. For others, it might be more of a journey. What’s important is that the freedom and sense of safety has to be there from the very beginning.

Become more human

So how do leaders create psychologically safe environments? Is it as simple as creating ‘rules of engagement’ in meeting spaces? That is part of the process, but it is also about making the entire workplace experience more human, and building humanity back into what we do as leaders and teams:

  • Don’t ‘shoot from the hip’ – one of the worst mistakes leaders make is when they use ad hoc communication, via electronic means or verbal. Plan what you are going to say and anticipate how your audience might react, and your counter points to that. Ensure your messaging is inclusive by taking a range of views on board. A further step could be for a leader to ask for feedback on how they have communicated and how the message landed. This shows that leaders are not infallible and are always willing to learn.
  • Creating a safe environment – don’t let one person dominate the real or virtual meeting space, and ensure that leaders do not ‘override people’ and stifle the conversation and ideas. Be open-minded when somebody is brave enough to challenge.
  • Create a space for innovation – learn how to embrace new ideas (even the more ambitious or unconventional ones) to foster an innovative culture. The usual rules apply that no idea is off limits (within reason), no idea is ever ridiculed, and all ideas have merit.
  • Invite colleagues into the conversation – ensure that there is an always-on feedback channel that colleagues can use, whether it be a personal channel or an anonymous feedback channel of some description. Ask colleagues how they want to communicate and what would work best for them. Colleagues will take more ‘risks’ when they know you care and have taken the time to ask how they want to be treated.
  • Use debrief sessions – use the sessions to learn and improve, not to highlight mistakes. Assume everybody did their best, as nobody sets out to fail, and work forward from there. ‘Look in the mirror’ and, as a leader, hold your hand up to the areas where you could improve. Approach the sessions with curiosity as opposed to looking for blame.
  • Share the power – Simon Sinek says that the biggest leadership lesson he ever learned is to say, “I don’t know”, or “I don’t understand”, or “I need help”. Whilst demonstrating to people that leaders don’t know everything, it signals that vulnerability is okay, and indicates a leader who is also in a safe enough environment to ask his or her team to help with the solution. There is a misconception that leaders have all the answers. Strong leaders know that collegiate solutions work best.

Walk the talk

The highest performing teams have several common traits around psychological safety, with trust and empathy for others at the heart of effective team performance. Yet it’s all too easy to get it wrong, especially as our brains process confrontation or a dismissive colleague as a threat, and we go into ‘fight or flight’ mode, where perspective and reasoning shut down.

Psychological safety has to be an explicit priority for it to work as effectively as it can, and it has to be connected to the higher purposes of innovation, inclusion and team dynamics. Ultimately, leaders have to walk the talk, model the behaviours they want to see, and demonstrate empathy in the workplace.