Psychological safety is one of the most important ingredients to success in the modern workplace. It is currently one of the hottest topics in leadership training, although it isn’t a new concept.
It was first introduced in the 1960’s but received very little interest, particularly as it applied to work performance. It briefly surfaced in 1990 when Dr. Kahn defined it as being able to employ oneself without fear of negative consequences to one’s self-image, status, or career.
Then in 1999, Dr. Edmondson expanded Kahn’s definition to the level of a team and defined it as when members on a team feel safe for interpersonal risk-taking with confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, humiliate, or punish them for it. The interpersonal risks could be anything from speaking up, asking questions, voicing concerns, sharing mistakes or challenges, or being able to brainstorm half-finished thoughts out loud.
Having psychological safety ensures that workers feel respected, valued, and creates a culture that allows them to be their authentic selves at work. It nurtures the idea that mistakes and conflicts should be embraced as learning opportunities, and that it is possible to welcome these and discuss them openly, rather than hide them in shame.
The reason we suddenly care so much about psychological safety is because research shows that it is the strongest predictor of team performance. Moreover, psychological safety has been found to lead to healthier group dynamics, greater innovation, more engagement at work, increased productivity, greater employee retention, and more job satisfaction. In fact, teams with high psychological safety were rated as effective twice as often, they brought in more revenue, and they were more likely to come up with creatively diverse ideas.
It is obvious that psychological safety is good for business, and knowing this, organizations are adapting and making it a priority. With many of us experiencing hybrid work arrangements, this puts psychological safety in the pivotal role of determining whether hybrid work will be successful or not. Why is psychological safety especially important with hybrid work?
First, psychological safety is built on the foundation of equality and fairness among everyone involved. But when you have some workers in-office, others remote, and others doing a mixture of the two, by definition, you have inequality. In other words, the working conditions of everyone is not equal in terms of access to resources, levels of autonomy, opportunities to socialize, discussions with team leader, or even how these discussions will occur, whether it is online or in-person. If in-office workers perceive that remote-workers have an unfair advantage with their added flexibility, or remote workers think that in-office workers get more one-on-one time with the boss, these kinds of beliefs can degrade psychological safety and ultimately hurt business.
Second, the boundaries between home and work are blurry with hybrid work, and yet many of us have been forced into this very situation. At the same time, the reasons for a leader to stay out of a worker’s home life are all still relevant today: There are legal and ethical issues related to asking personal questions, there is a potential for bias, not to mention the desire to respect another’s privacy. Yet for a leader to make informed decisions about scheduling and to be able to coordinate work tasks effectively across members of a team, leaders need to consider the worker’s personal constraints more and more – things like childcare, health, or other personal family matters.
If a worker is working at home, and there are problems at home that are affecting their ability to do their best work, it becomes relevant and important to talk about. Given that a leader can’t ask about personal constraints, the only alternative is if the worker were to volunteer the information themselves. To do this, the leader must nourish a workplace that is rich in psychological safety and create an environment that encourages workers to feel comfortable sharing aspects of their personal selves. At the same time, the leader has to trust that the worker is making the right decision for themselves, their family, and their work.
Although leaders are still responsible for the performance of their team, it is apparent that they have a direct influence on the psychological safety of their workers. By empowering leaders with the tools to establish and maintain psychological safety, this will impact everyone who works under that leader.
Here are 6 practical tips for any leader who wants to nurture psychological safety:
Being aware of the importance of psychological safety in the modern workplace is the first step for leaders, and we are here to help in any way that we can. Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let’s work together and create solutions that work best for you and your organization.