What’s the key to improving performance in the workplace? The answer to this age-old question could lie in a concept known as “psychological safety,” a term first coined by Amy Edmondson. Following a massive two-year study, Google found this was the factor most high-performing teams have in common. Psychological safety is the belief that if or when you make a mistake as an employee, you won’t be punished or humiliated. Further to this, research has shown that when employees at a company feel psychologically safe, they are more creative, more innovative and learn more from their mistakes.
Below, we’ll explore what a psychologically safe workplace is, its relationship with performance management, and the hallmarks of a psychologically safe workplace — so you can begin to give your employees what they need to succeed.
What Is a Psychologically Safe Workplace?
So how exactly does psychological safety factor into performance management? What does a psychologically safe workplace look like?
Psychological safety is all about creating a company culture and work environment where employees feel accepted, respected and — above all — comfortable to express themselves and learn. Employees who feel psychologically safe feel empowered to speak up. They don’t feel ignored and they know their opinion is valued. They know that their organization is geared to learn from mistakes, so their mistakes won’t follow them in their company forever. This means employees feel empowered to come up with innovative ideas and solutions to pressing company problems. They will freely suggest alterations or adaptations to existing processes to streamline work and increase productivity.
Equally, psychologically safe workplaces have employees who are comfortable to admit they don’t know how to do something — or a process or tool. They know that by doing so, they will get the (non-judgmental) help they need. As with most things, this begins with senior leadership. How they react to given situations and events will influence how other employees respond. It sets a cultural standard.
1. Psychologically Safe Workplaces See Failure as Learning
One huge hallmark of a psychologically safe workplace is a certain degree of comfort or acceptance when it comes to mistakes and failure. This isn’t to say psychologically safe workplaces encourage employees to become blasé about errors. It simply means such workplaces understand we are human — we aren’t perfect. People sometimes fail, and things will go wrong. This is okay and to be expected — as long as we learn lessons and improve as a result.
It’s important to distinguish between accountability and psychological safety. In a psychologically safe workplace, employees accept and own up to their mistakes — but they aren’t punished for them. If a pattern of poor performance is obvious, it is still possible to sanction this performance and put measures in place to turn the performance around. But it’s also possible to accept inevitable imperfections.
2. Dissent Is Allowed in Psychologically Safe Companies
As Edward R. Murrow said, we must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. Employees in psychologically safe workplaces are comfortable with expressing contrary opinions. They are encouraged to do so, knowing that by challenging the status quo and shaking things up, their companies can thrive.
Explore how comfortable your employees are in team meetings — do they feel they can raise difficult issues? Do they voice concerns and reservations? Do they suggest changes to the way things are normally done? Or are most ideas for change and advancement ultimately posed by senior leadership, leaving employees to believe their opinions aren’t valued?
To encourage psychological safety in your workplace, encourage disagreement and debate. The more this happens, the more comfortable employees will become with the idea. Regardless of rank, position, or job title, employees should know they have a right to give their insights and opinions.
3. Psychologically Safe Companies Close the Say/Do Gap
As suggested above, employees in psychologically safe organizations are encouraged to share ideas — not all insights come from senior leaders. But that’s only part of the puzzle. It does no good to listen to employee ideas if you do nothing as a result.
Managers should put good feedback, thoughts, and ideas into action. This isn’t to say companies should be implementing every idea put forward by employees — but they should make it clear that they’re considering these ideas. And if a manager says they are going to do something, they should do it. Failure to do so will result in employees disbelieving their feedback is of any real value.
4. Psychologically Safe Workplaces Allow for Real-Time Feedback
Psychologically safe workplaces encourage collaboration and communication. In such a workplace, if an employee needs help, they ask for it. Companies should provide tools that allow for real-time feedback, so employees aren’t left in the dark for an extended period.
Furthermore, the more employees and managers share feedback and communicate, the stronger their relationship becomes, and the more trust is earned. The more you communicate, the more your employees will understand how much you value them and their opinions.
5. Psychology Safe Workplaces Allow for Flexible Working
This is a connection you may not have considered. But a psychologically safe workplace is about more than just the exchange of opinions. It’s about feeling secure and safe in all aspects of work. Employees need to trust their managers, and they need to know their managers trust them — to do their jobs, accomplish their objectives, and work in a way they feel produces the best work.
Psychologically safe workplaces promote a coaching culture. They don’t micromanage. They give employees the support they need in terms of training, tools, and resources, and they take a step back to allow for optimal performance. Flexible working won’t look the same in every organization, but it’s about finding out what works for your company and your employees.
6. Psychologically Safe Workplaces Have Employees Who Don’t Know Everything
When was the last time you heard your employees say, “I don’t know”? These aren’t dirty words. If an employee isn’t sure about something or doesn’t understand, they should be able to ask for help or clarification. Is this the case in your organization, or do employees try to keep up an image of perfect knowledge when it comes to all aspects of work? It’s impossible for everyone to know everything. When an employee doesn’t feel safe enough to admit they are imperfect, this exhausting feat can lead to burnout, which is terrible in terms of company performance.
Transitioning to a psychologically safe working environment may take time — all organizational changes do. But making small, conscious efforts to make your employees feel more comfortable and valued at work could make a world of difference to your company culture and your employee experience.