Companies are prioritizing culture now more than ever. The backbone to a positive, supportive, and engaging workplace environment is the concept of psychological safety.
But what is psychological safety at work, and how can organizations promote it to ensure a robust employee experience? Read below to discover benefits to creating a safe environment, as well as tips on how to create one for your people.
Psychological safety is when people feel comfortable speaking up or asking for help without the fear of negative repercussions.
Therefore, psychological safety is about the work environment you create. A psychologically safe culture is one where someone can show up as their whole self, with no hesitation in being vulnerable. Think past the “open door policy;” you want your people to feel as though they can give feedback without negative consequences.
What’s more, psychological safety at work gives your people the permission to fail. In turn, this allows them to think, innovate, and be more creative. Why? Because employees can say, “I’ve never done that before” or “I don’t know how, but I can try,” and be confident that your view of them won’t diminish if they fail. In other words, they know you view a skill gap as an opportunity to develop professionally instead of seeing it as a weakness.
Beyond making your employees feel better, there are numerous benefits of building a psychologically safe workplace, including:
Alternatively, a psychologically unsafe environment – one in which people feel like they can’t speak up or can’t share opinions – detracts from the employee experience and decision-making as a whole. That’s because when people’s thoughts are stifled, leaders may be missing out on key insights and information to make the best decisions.
In a remote world, a psychologically safe culture is even more important. Since remote work has lost micro-moments from the office (such as chatting by the coffee pot or in the elevator), there’s no longer opportunities to randomly connect with coworkers to learn more about them as a whole person.
Additionally, when everyone doesn’t weigh-in, it makes the buy-in far more difficult. Oftentimes, work behind a computer screen can come across more transactional than friendly, since communications have the ability to turn cold and thankless in short emails or Slack messages. Organizations therefore need to develop intention around how people work together to create the safety everyone needs.
You know that having a psychologically safe workplace is important. Now what? Whether you’re building this environment from scratch or looking to refine your strategy, below are three suggestions on how to promote it at all levels.
Like every initiative, creating this type of environment needs to start from the top. But many leaders are guilty of saying “Do as I say, not as I do.” For example, if you’re telling your team to go home early and prioritize a work-life balance, yet you’re leaving the office at 10pm, you’re sending the wrong message.
As a leader, it’s your job to instead use the phrase “Do as I say… and as I do.”
Since a foundational step to psychological safety is building trust, it’s important for leaders’ actions to represent what they expect out of employees.
At Mixbook, we practice organizational health as a team. We’ve modeled our strategy off of The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business, which outlines the disciplines that it takes to have a healthy organization. We know that it stems from far more than sales and marketing plans; it has a lot to do with your people, trust built, and teams defined.
We also have quarterly offsites per team, where we do activities like personal history exercises to share things about our past that help define our present. We make time and prioritize this practice of being together, building trust, and being vulnerable, not only to develop positive relationships, but to also help make future problem solving and work disagreements less personal.
Besides offsites, we give employees memberships to global working spaces to give people the opportunity and flexibility to get together. This prioritization of face time is truly important to us, even though we’re a remote company.
And since we’ve launched this initiative of practicing principles of organizational health, we’re seen an uptick in our employee engagement. In fact, 10/10 Mixbookers report it’s a great place to work, and we have recently reported an eNPS of 74.
Developing norms for your organization shouldn’t feel like something you have to do. Instead, it should feel like something you get to do.
That’s because defined expectations create clarity, which helps promote psychological safety. When everyone knows what to expect, there’s little room for feeling surprised or uncomfortable. What’s more, solidifying and communicating norms helps reduce workplace bias and creates a sense of belonging for all employees.
It’s also important to set expectations that we often forget about, including:
Besides defining day-to-day expectations, Mixbook creates playbooks for each team for every year and quarter. When developing these, we ask: What is most important right now? What are our strategic anchors to help drive this vision? Doing so allows us to stay aligned and focused on tasks at hand, while also prioritizing what’s important to teams.
Additionally, we look to understand each other better prior to working together. For example, my team is mainly made up of introverts (myself included!). Sometimes, it’s hard for us to actively participate in brainstorming just because of the way we’re wired. My team practices what we call “silent brainstorming” on calls. When it’s time to brainstorm, we all go on mute for three minutes and jot down any ideas we have. After the time is up, we convene and then share. We’ve seen great success in using this method, as it helps even the playing field and amplifies all voices.
An antiquated view of workplace culture is that it’s owned by HR. In actuality, culture is owned by your entire organization, and therefore needs to be a tool that everyone builds upon and supports.
In order to help your people feel heard, your People team needs to own and strengthen the voice of the employee. By doing so, you’ll create an environment in which people can thrive because they know that their feelings matter.
To be the voice of the employee, your People team should:
Shifting your mindset is one thing, but applying product management thinking to people and your workplace is another. To do so, begin by taking a pulse and looking at data to discover what people need and what they’re asking for.
At Mixbook, we’ve attempted to change the People function from output driven to outcome driven. Previously we reviewed aspects like how many hires we successfully onboarded, employee retention, and employee turnover. These are all important to consider, but we find it more powerful to analyze if and how our current initiatives are working.
We now take the approach of seeing how a certain charge – such as our focus on organizational health – impacts things like employee happiness, eNPS, and productivity. Shifting our focus to outcome driven also provides flexibility, since we can alter which initiative we’re focusing on at that moment.
Psychological safety at work shouldn’t be a “nice to have.” It needs to be a “must have.”
Your people deserve to feel respected – emotions and all – in the workplace. In turn, you’ll see an increase in productivity, engagement, and innovation, all of which improve your bottom line. Ultimately, when you prioritize your people and their psychological wellbeing using these three strategies, everyone will benefit, now and for years to come.
About the Author: Kim is a passionate people leader whose current obsession is defining our “new normal” – as she’s certainly not one to wait around to see what the #futureofwork means. She is currently leading the global People team at Mixbook, where her purpose is to drive creativity and connection. Kim has a degree in classical piano, is currently based in Oakland, CA, and is quite the chatty introvert.
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