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How to Make 2024
the Year of Psychological Safety

A group of diverse people setting the foundations of a house and building it together.
Hacking HR Team

Posted on December 20, 2023

We are days away from a new year, and 2024 already promises its own set of new and unique challenges in addition to the many we are already dealing with.

Organizations must navigate the complexities of a world that has seen rapid changes in technology, increased awareness of mental health, and a greater emphasis on diversity and inclusion.

Against this backdrop, Psychological Safety becomes not just an asset but a necessity.

Psychological Safety is the buffer that can mitigate stress, enhance resilience, and foster a culture of adaptability and innovation. By prioritizing psychological safety, organizations can build a foundation strong enough not only to withstand the challenges of 2024 but also to emerge more robust.

It is with this understanding that I want to share a few thoughts about the importance of Psychological Safety in the workplace and explore actionable strategies for HR leaders and all members of an organization to cultivate this essential quality.

While Psychological Safety alone will not help any organization withstand the many challenges ahead, it can definitely be the kindle that ignites people to be bold in the pursuit of creative solutions.

Psychological Safety

Psychological Safety refers to an environment (whether at work or persona) in which people feel free to express relevant thoughts and feelings without fear of negative consequences to self-image, status, or career.

In such an environment, employees can take interpersonal risks, make mistakes, ask for help, and propose new ideas without feeling insecure or embarrassed.

At work, Psychological Safety represents a shared belief shared by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. This belief is reflected in the sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.

Ultimately, Psychological Safety is the bedrock upon which open communication, creativity, and mutual respect are built within an organizational context.

The Background of Psychological Safety

The concept of Psychological Safety is grounded in extensive research and empirical evidence that supports its vital role in effective team dynamics and organizational performance.

The term "Psychological Safety" gained prominence through the work of Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Business School professor. In her 1999 study, Edmondson conducted empirical research on hospital clinical teams and found that the best teams, paradoxically, reported making more errors. The key finding was that these teams weren’t making more mistakes; they were more open to discussing and reporting them, which is a sign of Psychological Safety. This led to higher performance as teams were able to learn and innovate without the fear of being penalized.

In 2012, Google conducted a massive two-year study on team performance known as Project Aristotle. The goal was to ascertain what factors led to the most effective Google teams. Psychological Safety emerged as the most critical dynamic that set successful teams apart. Teams with high Psychological Safety were more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas and were rated as effective twice as often by executives.

Components of Psychological Safety

These are some of the most important components of Psychological Safety:

  • Interpersonal Trust: Psychological Safety is predicated on interpersonal trust among team members. Trust that their peers, subordinates, and leaders will not ridicule or penalize honest mistakes or admissions of not knowing something.

  • Respectful Engagement: Psychological Safety encompasses a collective norm of respecting and actively listening to one another, valuing each other's contributions, and offering support. This is not merely about being nice (in fact, it is not necessarily about being “nice”); it is about fostering an environment where people feel respected enough to contribute their unique perspectives.

  • Consequence Management: A psychologically safe environment carefully manages the consequences of risk-taking. While not all ideas or actions will be successful, the focus is on learning from outcomes rather than punishing the risk-taker.

  • Inclusivity: Psychological Safety actively includes everyone's right to voice their thoughts. It ensures that all members feel equally free to contribute regardless of status or tenure.

  • Emotional Protection: Psychological Safety also protects people’s emotional well-being by ensuring that team members do not feel anxious about their interactions within the team.

The image below is very simple yet powerful. Inspired by Amy Edmondson and created by Heidi Pickett.

An image with an infographic and two charts: What some places think psychological safety is: 10 minutes at the end of supervision; once a year training/workshops; referral to occupational health or 'outside services'. The second pie depicts what psychological safety actually is: allowed peer supervision; safe learning space; senior staff accountability; no gossip/group blaming; safe to challenge/be vulnerable/apply leadership skills; safe to build confidence/work on weaknesses; safe to be unwell/have problems without judgment.
Image credit: Heidi Pickett

The Scope of Psychological Safety

At work, Psychological Safety operates on at least three levels:

  • Micro-Level: On an individual level, Psychological Safety allows employees to express themselves without fear of damaging their own image or career prospects.

  • Meso-Level: Within teams, Psychological Safety encourages collaborative efforts, shared learning, and collective problem-solving, often leading to improved team outcomes.

  • Macro-Level: At an organizational level, Psychological Safety contributes to shaping the overall culture, which can encourage innovation, adaptability, and resilience.

Sustaining Psychological Safety

Creating Psychological Safety at work is a dynamic and ongoing process. It requires continuous nurturing through actions and policies reinforcing the importance of an open, inclusive, and supportive work environment. Leaders play a critical role in modeling behaviors that promote Psychological Safety and setting expectations for such a climate to be maintained.

Psychological Safety is a complex, deeply embedded element of organizational culture that transcends individual and group interactions, influencing an organization's overall health, performance, and adaptability.

To sustain Psychological Safety over time, an organization must focus on some of these actions:

  • Supportive Environment: encouraging open communication and sincere feedback where employees can speak up without fear of retribution or ridicule.

  • Opportunity for Growth: allowing people to step out of their comfort zones to learn and develop new skills, acknowledging that growth often comes from trial and error.

  • Emphasis on Learning, Not Failure: focusing on learning from mistakes rather than punishing those responsible.

  • Team Integrity and Collaboration: fostering a team-oriented atmosphere where trust and mutual respect are paramount, working together towards common goals, and valuing each member's contribution.

  • Leadership Accountability: Leaders in a psychologically safe environment are approachable and accountable. They set the tone by modeling vulnerability, openness to feedback, and willingness to admit mistakes.

Fake vs Genuine Psychological Safety. Two columns show when psychological safety is genuine or fake.   Genuine: Team members freely share ideas and opinions without fear of ridicule or reprimand;   Fake: Team members agree in meetings but express dissent in private.    Genuine: Everyone's input is valued and considered, regardless of their position or tenure.   Fake: Only certain voices or opinions are regularly heard and considered or respected.

The Importance of Psychological Safety

The impact of Psychological Safety extends beyond individual well-being. It has tangible benefits for organizations, including:

  • Enhanced Innovation: Teams with high Psychological Safety are more likely to harness diverse ideas and perspectives, leading to greater creativity and innovation.

  • Improved Employee Engagement: Employees who feel safe are more engaged and committed to their organization, driving productivity and reducing turnover.

  • Effective Risk Management: When employees are not afraid to speak up, organizations can promptly identify and address risks.

How HR Leaders Can Promote Psychological Safety at Work

Along with senior leaders and direct managers, HR leaders play one of the most crucial roles in shaping the workplace culture and promoting Psychological Safety at work.

As shapers and influencers of the organizational ethos, HR leaders are strategically positioned to embed Psychological Safety into the DNA of the company's everyday operations and culture. They can drive initiatives that encourage open dialogue, foster a supportive environment, and cultivate a culture where employees feel genuinely valued and heard.

Here are ten ways HR leaders can promote Psychological Safety:

  1. Develop Clear Policies: Create and implement clear policies that underscore the importance of Psychological Safety, non-retaliation, and respect for all employees.

  2. Inclusive Hiring Practices: Ensure recruitment strategies bring in diverse candidates and that hiring panels are trained to value diverse perspectives.

  3. Onboarding Programs: Integrate Psychological Safety into onboarding programs to set the tone from the very beginning of an employee’s tenure.

  4. Training for Managers: Offer training for managers on how to create psychologically safe team environments, including how to give and receive feedback constructively.

  5. Encourage Open Conversations: Organize regular forums and feedback sessions where employees can speak openly about their concerns and ideas.

  6. Recognition Programs: Implement recognition programs that reward not only results but also the process of collaboration, learning, and mutual help.

  7. Support Systems: Establish support systems such as employee assistance programs and mental health resources.

  8. Performance Management: Redefine performance management to include how people contribute to creating a safe and supportive work environment. This includes assessing accountability for creating and sustaining Psychological Safety.

  9. Regular Surveys: Conduct regular employee surveys to measure Psychological Safety and act on the findings.

  10. Leadership Accountability: Hold leaders accountable for fostering Psychological Safety within their teams by including this as a criterion in their performance reviews.

Making 2024 the Year of Psychological Safety

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, 2024 will be a very challenging year. And to combat the many challenges we will face, we have to double down on Psychological Safety to allow people to express themselves freely and come up with more creative ideas to solve our complex societal (and organizational) difficulties).

As organizations navigate through uncertainties and strive for resilience, creating a psychologically safe environment can be the cornerstone for not only enduring but thriving in challenging times.

Here are ten simple and practical ways in which everyone can contribute to creating Psychological Safety for themselves and everyone else:

  1. Practice Active Listening: Give full attention to others when they speak, and show that their ideas and feelings are valued.

  2. Speak Up for Others: If you notice someone being interrupted or discounted, gently bring the conversation back to their point.

  3. Encourage Participation: In meetings, invite quieter team members to share their thoughts, ensuring everyone's voice is heard. However, be mindful in how you invite people to participate. Most people do not like to be put on the spot, even if done for the right reasons.

  4. Show Empathy and Act with Kindness: Be considerate of others' feelings and perspectives, and demonstrate understanding in your responses.

  5. Embrace Vulnerability: Share your own challenges and learning experiences, making it safer for others to do the same.

  6. Acknowledge Mistakes: When you make a mistake, own it openly. This models that errors are part of the learning process.

  7. Celebrate Efforts: Recognize and celebrate the effort and progress, not just successful outcomes.

  8. Provide Support: Offer people help when they are facing challenges, and be approachable when they need assistance.

  9. Foster Inclusivity: Be inclusive in your language and actions.

  10. Maintain Confidentiality: When a colleague shares something in confidence, respect their privacy to build trust.

Download Your Essential Guide to Psychological Safety

Cover of the Ebook 'A Practical Guide To Creating Psychological Safety in SMBs.'
An E-book tailored to small and medium-sized businesses.

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