Have you ever been hesitant to break difficult news to a boss, acknowledge a problem, or ask for help from team members? Do you believe that speaking out in the workplace might be viewed in a negative light, looked down upon by your peers, or even label you as an “outsider” or “not a team player?”
For most employees, the answer is a resounding “yes.” In fact, only one in five employees feel comfortable sharing constructive criticism at work, according to a 2021 Dale Carnegie survey of over 6,500 employees from 21 countries. That’s a problem because research shows that companies who encourage independent thinking regularly outperform competitors who discourage or otherwise punish employees for speaking up.
The issue is called “psychological safety,” and it refers to an employee’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk that could result in being treated as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive. Here’s the latest thinking on psychological safety, and how leaders can increase it to enhance resilience, inclusivity, innovation, and agility.
Importance of Psychological Safety
In her landmark research and TED presentation that coined the term, Dr. Amy Edmondson provided a scale of employee beliefs on psychological safety, ranging from downright hostile at the lowest level to the most comfortably safe situation when it comes to speaking freely. They are as follows:
- “If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.”
- “Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.”
- “People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.”
- “It is safe to take a risk on this team.”
- “It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.”
- “No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.”
- “Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.”
Near the bottom of the list, it’s easy to see how employees would feel encouraged to express their opinions, experiment to the point of making some mistakes, and trust their coworkers in a positive way. Near the top or middle of the list, it’s obvious an employee would not feel comfortable taking even moderate risks in the things they say and do while attempting to contribute.
The Disadvantages of Not Having a Psychologically Safe Work Environment
A lack of psychological safety leads to inaccurate or delayed reporting. Worse still, it leads to increasingly stressed or disengaged employees. It fosters groupthink and discourages diversity. It stifles ideation, constructive feedback, and ultimately creativity. When that happens, companies become slow-moving, indecisive, and incapable of reacting quickly when market conditions suddenly change. Recent research by Dale Carnegie confirms all of this.
To make matters worse, the ongoing shift to remote and hybrid work environments make psychological safety an even bigger problem. When compared to pre-pandemic offices, remote and hybrid working environments further separate employees, according to a 2021 PwC Remote Work Survey. Despite its benefits, the “new normal” of work-from-anywhere provides fewer opportunities for employees to feel a sense of belonging, PwC found. Remote work creates fewer opportunities for admitting mistakes, analyzing lessons learned, and getting and giving frequent feedback.
In short, hybrid workspaces discourage employees from speaking up.
3 Ways Leaders Can Promote Psychological Safety
In a world where only 17% of employees “strongly agree” that their leaders encourage criticism, experimentation, and learning from mistakes — according to our recent survey — and just 25% feel that trusting relationships are “the norm,” there’s never been a better time to make psychological safety a priority. This is even more pertinent as remote workspaces further erode organizational trust and belonging.
The good news is 64% of US executives plan to increase their investment in training remote/hybrid managers, according to the PwC US Remote Work Survey cited above. In our view, psychological safety must be a part of that training — specifically how to assess it within individual teams, how it leads to more resilience, inclusion, creativity, and agility, and how it boosts both effective collaboration and change management.
To do this, we encourage leaders to learn and practice the principles that support psychological safety. Don’t know where to start? Here are three proven steps you can take today to begin fostering a culture of psychological safety among your employees, coworkers, and teams:
- Observe how teams suppress ideas or differing opinions. Noting the above challenges when speaking out, monitor how your teams may be inadvertently or even deliberating discouraging participation. Reassure team members that their honest feedback is encouraged and will not be punished or misjudged. Thank team members for their unique contributions and ideas. Adopt them where appropriate and encourage continued feedback even when their ideas are not accepted.
- Treat mistakes as easy to correct. If there’s no crying over spilt milk, there’s no need to make team members’ mistakes seem detrimental or insurmountable. Rarely, if ever, can individual mistakes lead to the downfall of entire organizations. So, encourage your team members through their faults like you would a child with spilt milk.
- Show respect for others’ opinions. It’s okay to disagree, especially when substantiated with reliable data. But you should never make light, degrade, or treat differing ideas, constructive criticism, or mistakes with hostility. Rather, thank participants for their efforts and encourage them to continue. Also reassure them of the strength in numbers and diverse thought.
To learn more on developing psychological safety, view an on-demand panel talk session on Psychology Safety: Empowering, Innovative, and Inclusive Workplace Cultures.