Psychological safety is defined as the ability to “show and employ one’s self without the fear of negative consequences of self-image, safety or career” (Kahn 1990, p. 708). Since the beginning of our evolution, psychological safety has been shown to be an important factor in motivating ourselves. As ancient humans, to survive within the harsh environments that we were in, we naturally evolved to be cautious. Only in the presence of psychological safety are we willing to trust each other, be more confident, and try things unknown to us. Fast forward to today, while we have developed highly successful ways to deal with many of the life-threatening circumstances around us, research has shown that the presence of psychological safety still plays an instrumental part in ensuring that we are able to perform to the best of our potential.
In recent years, senior leaders have come to realise the importance of building psychological safety within their organisations as well, and as such made psychological safety one of the biggest buzzwords across the world of business. Furthermore, with digital work environments becoming increasingly common in 2020 due to work from home arrangements, interactions between co-workers have the potential to become much more transactional, and interpersonal fear amplifies as a result of less face-to-face social interactions between colleagues. Therefore, it is more important now than ever to refocus the spotlight on the topic of psychological safety within teams and understand how we can build trust to enable our staff to deliver their best work. Here are some suggestions on how we can do that.
Building a culture of curiosity plays a vital part in creating psychological safety in an organisation. Through the promotion of curiosity, employees are empowered to ask questions, and speak their mind, without having to be concerned about job security. As a leader, this might sound like:
Team: How can we possibly process all this data ahead of the project timeline? We have never worked on anything like this volume before.
Leader: I admit I’m baffled by the volume too, and I don’t have all the answers on how we’ll get on top of it, but I do know that we have the right people, and learning attitude as a team to make this work. Let’s do this together. Who has ideas on how we should start to break this down?
Dialogue like this encourages open channels of communication within work environments, and more importantly, develop a sense of trust among fellow colleagues. In turn, trust leads to a sense of safety, and this leads to the emergence of a multitude of positive behaviours, such as willingness to learn, innovation, and trying new approaches to problems faced at work.
As leaders, one of the best ways to promote curiosity in the workplace is to lead by example. When something at work does not seem to make sense, it helps to first ask questions, and not be too quick to assign blame. This allows for employees to share their point of view, explore the issue further, and instils confidence in the team that open discussion is encouraged. This might look like:
Team: I am really sorry, this project did not seem go the way we expected it to.
Leader: Let’s explore this together. What do you think are the top priorities we should focus on to make things better for us?
In addition, a leader can also promote curiosity in the workplace by creating a sense of collective responsibility for issues as a team, and engaging the team in regular dialogue focusing on solutions to the issue. For example, a common issue, especially with the prevalence of digital work, is the lack of communication between teams. By having team engagements, it allows for the group to own the issue collectively, clarify any misunderstandings, and identify potential strategies to resolve the problem. These solution-focused sessions also promote a growth mindset and encourages the team to constantly seek improvement, giving confidence to employees that they are working in an environment where it is safe to suggest changes without negative consequences to themselves and their jobs.
In today’s digital environments, it is easy to ignore the need to build relationships between members of the team. Communication in the #WFH era tends to be highly transactional through chat and email and Zoom and with fewer opportunities for the interactions in informal settings we used to benefit from, such as chatting in the lift, at the coffee machine, or Friday night social time. This lack of social ‘unstructured’ time is detrimental to psychological safety over time, directly impacting the level of trust there is among team members as they do not get opportunities to know each other better on a personal level.
As such, it is up to leaders to be deliberate about creating opportunities for informal interactions at work. This could be as simple as a 5-10 minute teambuilding exercise or requesting for the team to share some aspects of their personal life before going into a more serious discussion. A few of my favourite examples of this include sharing about an event that happened during the week that made the team happy, introducing their hobbies, or sharing about their cultural heritage. Organisations can also consider planned social exchanges by having employees take turns to show part of their personal or work life through recorded video snippets or emails with photos to bond the team, despite not being able to meet up regularly. These seemingly trivial interactions go a long way in building psychological safety, and prevents any issues from being swept under the rug just because team members are “not sure how others would respond”.
Different individuals feel comfortable to speak their minds honestly under different conditions. Some people feel at ease when in large group settings, while others prefer one to one conversations based on their personality type. Often, while trying to achieve efficiencies, organisations might indirectly limit the avenues available for employees to share their ideas and comments openly, inadvertently catering to extroverts or the most senior members of a team. For example, while speaking with a peer of mine named Dennis, he shared that his company made a decision to only meet once a week in a group of 25 over a zoom call, in order to make online work more efficient. He felt that this set up limited opportunities for his colleagues who are more soft-spoken, or less confident, and prevent them from feeling safe to speak up. Luckily he was conscious of this, and actively sought out his quieter colleagues, specifically saying ‘Jim, what do you think?’ and ‘Yu Ping, what’s your opinion on that?’. He felt it was a bit uncomfortable to be so specific at first, but he was surprised to find his colleagues were ready and willing to voice up in this situation – he shared with me that he thought they were just waiting to be asked, but now that their voices had broken into the group they didn’t need to be invited again. Dennis’s example is a great one – it shows not just the leader in a group is responsible for creating this psychological safety in the digital environment – any colleague can do it. Beyond the physical office environment, we can help certain team members be mentally comfortable to share their thoughts openly.
Therefore, as leaders of an organisation, we should take steps to ensure every staff member gets opportunities to share their thoughts in environments they are comfortable in. One such way is to vary the way meetings are done, incorporating different online tools to garner feedback from individuals in the team. Examples I’ve seen work really well include using an online whiteboard for sharing of ideas or making use of cloud-based apps that allow real-time interactions among team members. However, what works best really depends on the team and the culture of the organisation. Organisations can also consider periodically organising smaller group meetings for members of the staff, and providing the space and time for ideas to emerge among these smaller meetings. Finally, in the mental space, research has also shown that greater trust and psychological safety can be achieved when leaders are seen to be authentic and are willing to share their vulnerabilities before asking for others to do so. Thus, one of the best ways to encourage a comfortable mental environment is for leaders themselves to take the lead, and regularly take ownership of their vulnerabilities, and share among team members how they choose to manage their challenges. By doing so, this sends a message to the team that this is a safe space where everyone should feel comfortable speaking up.
To build a psychologically safe work environment, it can be seen that trust plays a vital role. Through encouraging curiosity, creating deliberate social interactions, and creating comfortable environments, the team is made to develop a sense of trust in the process, the people and the environment respectively. It is only with genuine trust in the various dimensions will we be able to continue building a psychologically safe digital working environment which will propel our organisations towards its next milestone.