You may have some experience working in a culture that doesn’t feel psychologically safe. Awhile back I worked with a woman whose department was so unsafe and dysfunctional that she ended up with diagnosable anxiety and depressive disorders, requiring months of psychotherapy. Her bosses were downright rude and showed no care for her as a person whatsoever. When she finally was able to find another job, her health improved dramatically. When you’re stressed out, and feel your environment is unsafe, you can’t focus on your work, much less excel at it. Many leaders know this at some level, but the pressures of profits and hitting goals often crowd out any desire to focus on creating a culture of psychological safety at work. In his recent book, Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek notes the typical mindset that comes from this pressure: "this stuff is expensive, hard to measure, and often seems 'soft' or 'fluffy'" (p. 27).
In contrast to this myth, psychological safety is the very foundation for organizational effectiveness, and research is increasingly showing that this "soft stuff" is actually quite hard in predicting performance.
Sinek emphasizes the importance of psychological safety in an organization with the concept of a "circle of safety," which ultimately comes down to promoting human connection within an organization. “By creating a Circle of Safety around the people in the organization," Sinek says, “leadership reduces the threats people feel inside the group, which frees them up to focus more time and energy to protect the organization from the constant dangers outside and seize the big opportunities” (p. 22). Sinek believes that great leaders do not view people as a means to the end of financial prosperity. Rather, they see money as a resource to be managed to help grow their people. I wholeheartedly agree.
There is more and more compelling evidence that safety and security are critical for effectiveness. A recent study published in the International Journal of Stress Management* provides a great example of this. A research team from Australia predicted and confirmed that a “psychosocial safety climate" was associated with more learning opportunities, higher levels of engagement, and better performance. In addition, psychosocial safety predicted performance indirectly through learning opportunities and engagement. When your employees feel emotionally safe, they are more motivated to engage in their work and perform at a high level.
So, how do you put this study into practice as a leader or influencer? Here are 3 practices to promote a culture of psychological safety.
1. Focus on growing your people as the ultimate goal. This includes your employees, co-workers and customers. This involves developing a mindset of putting people first. If you start with this mindset, you will create value for your employees and customers—human value and business value. Take a step back, set aside the strategy and goals, and think about this question: “how can I make our culture feel safer to our people?” And, “how can I help our people develop personally and professionally.” Brainstorm a list of several possibilities, then pick one and start with that. It could be something simple like providing lunch on occasion so team members can have time to interact more formally and build relationships. It could be laying out guidelines for productive debate if conflict has become unhealthy. Whatever the particular needs, the important thing is to focus on how you can build and grow your people.
2. Actively promote learning opportunities for your people. In the study mentioned above, learning opportunities were associated with psychosocial safety. Be proactive about promoting learning opportunities for your people. People are naturally motivated to learn in areas of interest to them. If you provide opportunities to learn, your people will become fired up to come to work and learn and make progress on meaningful projects.
3. Be securely vulnerable. A secure leader needs to model for the team that she is psychologically secure enough to recognize weaknesses, admit mistakes, and be vulnerable in a way that is contained. In other words, the purpose of the vulnerability is to show your team what you expect of them, and to build trust, not to enlist team members to take care of you emotionally. Another word for this is “transparent.”
Think about it: do you trust someone who can’t be vulnerable?
I try to admit when I’m wrong and apologize to clients and those with whom I work. I don’t always do this soon enough or in the right way, but it’s a value and goal I strive to achieve.
When I am learning things about myself through my own struggles, I try to share this in appropriate ways with people with whom I’m working. This doesn’t make you weak; it makes you safe and a secure base, which creates a culture of psychological safety for your team. Whether you’re in a formal leadership position, or informally influencing your work culture, I hope these practices will help you promote safety in your organization.
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Awang Idris, M., Dollard, M.F., & Tuckey, M.R. (2015). Psychosocial safety climate as a management tool for employee engagement and performance: A multilevel analysis. International Journal of Stress Management, 22(2), 183-206.