Why Psychological Safety
Matters at Work
The term “Psychological Safety” was coined by Amy Edmonson in her book Fearless Organizations. It has gained much popularity, but I want to enlighten you as to why it’s critical to employee retention and dramatically minimizing the impacts of the Great Resignation in your workplace.
Before “psychological safety” was known to many, the concept of “safe spaces” was created. It started out on college campuses as a way to ensure that those who were in marginalized groups could feel safe to talk about things like microaggressions and why they felt unsafe being themselves on campus. Physical spaces were created where they could come and be free from poor and discriminatory treatment or language. Over the years, this concept is more broadly applied to anyone at work, not just those in marginalized groups. Now, it applies to things like:
- Do we feel safe in the broadest term to be our full selves in all environments?
- Are we comfortable with being the dissenting opinion in a room?
- Do we feel ridiculed when we voice our perspectives?
- When we open up with different ideas, are those ideas applauded or looked down upon?
- How physically safe do we feel?
- Is my voice heard and acted upon at all?
- Do people at work frown on how my cultural differences impact my thinking?
- Do we fear that we are being or will be harassed or threatened at work?
This list goes on and on and is at the center of why people choose to quit their jobs. How we answer these questions for ourselves determines whether or not we feel “safe” or even psychologically safe. Would you stay very long in a place where you did not feel such safety? Given this backdrop, it is critical for organizations to create psychological safety for employees if we want to retain them.
Below are some ways for you to create psychological safety in your workplace, whether remote or on-site, and minimize the chances that a lack of “safety” will be a driving factor for employee turnover:
1. Make Every Space a Safe Space
I’d like to challenge our thinking on the idea that we need just one “space” or just one “moment in time” to create psychological safety. While my firm works with organizations on facilitating listening sessions and in employee survey strategy, the end goal will always be to create a foundation of trust so that many moments and every space (virtual or not) can be safe. Organizational leaders must commit to make every one-on-one, hallway interaction, team meeting, or group meeting feel safe. You want people opening up and even having respectful debates in the open rather than leaning into the divisiveness of whispers and hidden agendas. Promote this in your words and in your actions, in what you support and what you put your resources behind.
Every space should be a safe space for it to be long-lasting.
2. Commit to Consistent Organizational Listening
Every organization should have an organizational listening strategy to be sure they are listening “Above Organization” as well between people and between team members and customers. When you listen in this way, you are able to see the aggregate, the trends, and signs of discontent. It also helps organizational leaders recalibrate strategic direction as a way to own talent management outcomes. What we don’t know can definitely hurt us. Organizational leaders who are focused on listening as a key to achieve desired outcomes will minimize the “Great Resignation” dilemma. Those who feel heard and see the action behind their request are much more likely to want to stay with that employer. Would you want to leave a place that listens to you and takes action on your voice?
3. Train Everyone on What Not to Do
It’s one thing to want to create more psychological safety at work and want to make every space safe. It’s another thing to ensure that everyone knows how to do that and what it looks like in practice. It is incumbent upon the senior leaders to educate and provide opportunities for all team members to learn what are right things to do and what are the wrong things to do to create safe spaces where people feel like they can be themselves, open up to tell their truth, present dissenting ideas and so on. This should be mandatory training that has at its base, roundtables and open dialogue. This is inclusiveness in a more expansive light. What makes everyone at work feel most safe whether they are in the office or behind a Zoom screen?
4. Enforce Your Norms and Values
Make sure to review and recreate your organizational norms to be sure that everyone knows what is acceptable, include a diverse set of employees from all areas and levels in the organization to come up with these norms so that they are representative. Also, be sure to have some enforcement mechanisms in place for when team members inevitability overstep the acceptable practices. Along these lines, be sure to give a little grace as you transition as everyone will be learning a new way to show up. This is not a journey to perfection, but rather a journey to getting better for the good of the whole.
5. Reward Their Courage
You have heard that it’s much more effective to reward good behavior than punish bad behavior, right? When we are thinking about making every space a safe space, we will need to be more intentional in pointing out, behind closed doors and in larger meetings, when someone presents a counter idea and our appreciation for their doing so. So much of the fear that comes with the lack of psychological safety stems from environments where people either don’t notice when someone raises their hand with a different view or say nothing about it.
Additionally, if you are the most senior person in the room, you may need to use it as an opportunity to point out the kind of thinking that you value, but recognizing the person or people who speak up. Side note: With those who are really shy or have social anxiety, you might want to chat with them one-on-one first to gain their buy-in to bring the idea up in the group setting. Otherwise, they might be horrified to have to defend their view in the larger group, especially if they don’t think they will get your support. Reward their courage with encouragement and guidance. They will never forget it.
As many organizations are grappling with high employee turnover and deciding whether virtual or hybrid work is here to stay, workplaces that can create psychological safety and overarching safe spaces for team members will win the talent race. Your commitment to differentiating your employer brand in the ways I described above will make all the difference in whether your people want to stay or want to go, fast!