How to cultivate psychological safety for better workplace wellbeing  

What leaders need to prioritise for happy and high-performing teams

It is widely acknowledged across various industries that effective leadership is essential for any successful team or organisation. However, the modern workplace requires leaders to prioritise tangible results and numerous other factors that contribute to a positive and productive team culture. One essential element of this is psychological safety, which focuses on creating an environment that nurtures trust and confidence, so that team members feel able to ask for help, admit mistakes and suggest ideas without the fear of negative consequences or retribution.

So just how important is psychological safety in the workplace? This article will explore why leaders must nurture this essential element to maintain happy and high-performing teams.

What exactly is psychological safety?

According to Dr Amy Edmondson, a leader in this field, psychological safety is “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes and the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking”. In other words, it is a space where individuals can make errors without fear of condemnation, feel free to present innovative ideas without judgement, and participate in an environment where people can share ideas for the benefit of the collective.

Psychological safety at work

Consider being in a business meeting with your peers, listening to the CEO. A statement is made that you don’t fully understand, and you feel the urge to ask a question and clear up some minor confusion. However, as you raise your hand, you feel the weight of possible humiliation come over you. You consider the impact of feeling embarrassed and become unwilling to take that risk. This is an example of when you do not feel psychologically safe. Instead, if the culture of the organisation clarified that “no questions are foolish” and “I understand that some of this material can be confusing,” you get an idea of how a simple shift in communication can create more psychological safety.

Why do leaders need to prioritise psychological safety?

There are numerous benefits of leaders creating a psychologically safe environment, with research showing a correlation between feelings of safety, happiness and productivity. To a business, this can be the difference between make or break, which is why it is so important.  Let’s look at some possible benefits to a business:

1. The bottom line

Generally, a key performance indicator of a business is its turnover and profit. Quite simply, a safe environment creates a comfortable and happy workforce leading to more productivity and increased revenues.

2. Innovation

With less fear around the condemnation of ideas and a tolerance of errors, there is a natural tendency towards a more creative environment. By promoting creativity, a business can become a hub of innovation.

3. Increased engagement

The focus towards psychological safety allows more freedom of expression, naturally keeping the job more interesting and the workforce more engaged. An engaged workforce is more enthusiastic about their work and is more likely to get involved in all aspects of the organisation.

4. Job satisfaction

We all realise that an employee is more likely to stick around if they feel fulfilled in their job, and part of that satisfaction comes from listening to their ideas and giving them space to be creative. 

5. Enhanced collaboration and teamwork

Collaboration and teamwork are vital to an organisation, ensuring that the workforce understands what is expected of them and their responsibilities. With clarity around fears and concerns, the workplace becomes more transparent. As members better understand their peers, there is less opportunity for poor communication and eventual conflict.

6. Improved physical and mental wellbeing

An environment that focuses on reducing stress and anxiety can promote a culture towards better physical and mental health. With employees able to share their fears and challenges, the environment supports those who may be feeling overwhelmed and prevents those vulnerable to burnout.

Understanding the many benefits to a business, there is no surprise that many companies are starting to recognise and embrace psychological safety. Having outlined some of these benefits, no discussion would be complete without considering just how leaders can achieve this. 

How do leaders strive towards creating a psychologically safe environment?

1. Become self-aware

Successful business leaders focus on self-awareness and recognize that their emotions impact their communication, actions, and, inevitably, their teams’ performance. When leaders focus on self-awareness, they can modify their behaviour and communication style and lead their peers more effectively.

2. Modify language

Leaders should learn to change their language to communicate more positively, avoiding certain words. For example, an easy modification is to use the word “challenge” rather than “problem.” Teams that face problems may feel overwhelmed and negative, but by using the word “challenge,” they get a more positive sensation and an opportunity to create solutions.

3. Feedback instead of criticism

Learning to give feedback rather than criticism is another vital skill to build psychological safety in the workplace. Although the difference between criticism and feedback may seem subtle, the two have key differences. When a leader criticises, the receiver can become deflated and unmotivated. Criticism is focused on past mistakes, weaknesses, and outcomes we don’t want. Feedback, on the other hand, enables the receiver to become clearer on the desired outcome and focuses more on strengths and the future.

4. Open to change

Successful leaders are open to receiving feedback. Business leaders often fear receiving feedback from their teams under the false illusion that they are managing and leading without fault. However, when we are willing to listen to the concerns of the people we manage, irrespective of their position in the organisation, the workforce may feel more empowered to share openly and truthfully.

In summary, leaders who prioritise psychological safety can create a culture of honesty,  transparency and trust where team members are encouraged to share their ideas, learn from past mistakes and challenge the status quo. The benefits to an organisation are much more than increased turnover with more engaged and motivated employees and enhanced creativity and innovation. By fostering a psychologically safe environment, leaders can help to build a happy and high-performing team that is able to tackle multiple challenges that come their way.  

Dr Adam Greenfield is a Doctor of Chiropractic, workplace wellbeing expert and co-founder of WorkLifeWell.

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