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What is a Psychologically Safe Culture, and How Can Leaders Create It?

When I worked in financial services during the credit crunch, I was involved in many redundancies. There were occasions that I felt I couldn’t speak up about things that weren’t true to my values. That feeling of not being able to speak up is the essence of a lack of psychological safety at work.

If you find yourself in a situation where you feel like you can’t speak up, whether that’s because you see something being done wrong, or whether you want to raise a new idea,  you might be in an environment that is not psychologically safe.

In this blog, I discuss psychological safety and why it’s crucial to build a work culture that instils this in the workplace. I also discuss how leaders can create psychological safety in the work environment and tips for your team.

What is Psychological Safety?

Psychological safety is the belief that punishment and harassment do not await you if you speak up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. The Centre for Creative Leadership defines psychological safety as “a shared belief held by team members that others on the team will not embarrass, reject or punish you for speaking up.” 

Instilling a Work Culture of Psychological Safety

It is crucial to create a culture that instils psychological safety, not just to support reporting of mistakes and errors but also to drive creativity and innovation. Suppose you think back to any significant corporate failures over the last 20 years. Often there has been a lack of psychological safety where somebody doesn’t dare to speak up for one reason or another. The recent news about ex-employees of BrewDog sharing their experience of a psychologically unsafe work culture is a timely example. Former staff members alleged a “culture of fear” with a “toxic attitude” to junior staff members by the Founders. The ex-employees noted that staff were afraid to speak up about concerns. The Founders later replied, saying that they are taking the revelation seriously and seeing the feedback as an opportunity to get better. 

Psychological safety creates a culture where people feel they can:

  • Perform at their best
  • Share ideas and take risks 
  • Make mistakes and learn from them

An HBR article states, “Psychological safety allows for moderate risk-taking, speaking your mind, creativity and sticking your neck out without fear of having it cut off — just the types of behaviour that lead to market breakthroughs.” 

A psychologically safe workplace drives creativity, innovation, problem-solving and enables the organisation to create better solutions in their industry. It encourages employees to speak up when they see a problem and helps organisations to avoid potential failings, wasted time and money. It is also vital from a business perspective as it builds employee engagement and in turn, customer satisfaction.

“Psychological safety is the foundation of high-performing teams. When people do not feel safe, they stop taking risks or giving their best.” – Gustavo Razzetti, CEO, Fearless Culture. 

How can a Leader Build Psychological Safety?

At a team level, psychological safety depends on the leader of the team. Trust is at an individual relationship level.

For a leader, building psychological safety is about openness. Being open to new ideas. Allow others to learn from their mistakes, take accountability for your own mistakes and learn from them as well. Accept that it’s okay not to have all the answers. The old school command and control style of leadership, where leaders were expected to have all the answers, often were cultures that weren’t psychologically safe.

Amy Edmondson has done a lot of research around this and created the “Teaming” model.

High-performing, high-learning organisations are the ones that are creating psychological safety, and they make people accountable.

Work culture can differ from team to team, even within the same company. It is possible to have different levels of psychological safety throughout an organisation.

With all types of organisational structures, psychological safety starts at the top. As leaders, you need to be aware that you set the tone, and you’re a crucial source of influence to other managers and leaders in your business. Without your influence, your employees’ experiences will be different depending on their managers or teams. 

Tips on How to Create a Psychologically Safe Environment

It’s never too late to start building psychological safety into your work culture. Here are a few steps:

Embrace opportunities for learning 

Create learning opportunities in your company by embracing mistakes and making it acceptable to try things and take a chance. The key is to learn from mistakes and improve. Take time in team meetings to review lessons; think about what you did and how you would do it differently in the future. 

Don’t assume you have all the answers 

Involve your teams in problem-solving, co-creation and collaboration projects. Recognise the diversity of thought and experience, which will create a better solution than you can create on your own. Empower your team to take responsibility and authority where possible. 

Practice non-judgement and generosity 

Brené Brown’s BRAVING inventory includes these vital elements. Create an environment where people know that they can come to you to talk without any judgment. In conversations with staff, assume positive intent and the most generous interpretation of what someone’s said or done. This mindset creates a better working culture and helps build psychological safety in the team.

I support leaders in building a healthy work culture. The next cohort of the Heart-Centred Leaders Programme begins in September. Find out more here or get in touch on 07980 838945 or email me at [email protected] 

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