How to create psychological safety in the workplace

September 2020

Ruth Cooper-Dickson of Champs, the Wellbeing consultancy, returned to the atrium at Fora Spitalfields for the latest Thrive session. The series has been running for four months with participants also joining via Zoom throughout the depths of the lockdown but, as working life returns increasingly to normal, the mood was upbeat. The audience reported a lot of Eights and even Nines-out-of-tens in terms of their general wellbeing and their positivity carried through into the day’s discussion about creating Psychological Safety at work. 

 

Throughout the previous months, Ruth has discussed the four elements of authentic leadership: idealised influence; inspirational motivation; intellectual stimulation and individualised consideration. This last element encompasses Psychological Safety, creating space for open and honest conversations in the workplace. Ruth shared the definition given by Professor Amy Edmondson of Harvard University:

 

 “Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes”.

 

The word ‘belief’ in this definition is key. Psychological Safety is a feeling and an intrinsic part of who we are. Within the working environment it allows for moderate risk taking; the ability to speak your mind and also being able to stick your neck out (without fear!). It was a concept that resonated with the audience. Several agreed that safe-to-fail environments encouraged increased creativity and innovation as well as stronger team relationships. Ruth emphasised that an ability to recognise that none of us hold all the answers leads to better teamwork. 

 

Psychological Safety is both vital and fragile in uncertain and interdependent environments, but there is fundamental science which underpins it. ‘We’re all a bag of chemicals,’ explained Ruth. On one hand there are our natural fight, flight or freeze responses. In contrast, by creating environments that foster trust, curiosity, inspiration and confidence we help increase the levels of Oxytocin in our brains. This is the chemical that boosts a sense of confidence and which strengthens a sense of connection between people. 

 

Google conducted a two-year study into how to best foster Psychological Safety and the key findings included:

  • – Framing the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem
  • – Acknowledging your own fallibility
  • – Modeling curiosity and asking lots of questions

 

The research found that high-performance teams were not immune to making mistakes but that they were more willing to discuss them with each other when they happened. Teams should share vulnerabilities, such as when plans failed, when they felt out of their depths or if they felt pressured and stressed.

 

The session also discussed tips on how to boost our sense of Psychological Safety and fight against the negative bias hardwired into all our brains. These included:

  • – Adopting a growth mindset
  • – Understanding our own beliefs about failure 
  • – Limiting ‘What if’ statements
  • – Reframing and employing positive perspectives 

 

None of us is infallible, but recognising this can significantly boost our sense of Psychological Safety in a supportive working environment that encourages initiative, ideas and open communication. Teams are not great because they do not fail, but because they are able to discuss and learn from challenges and setbacks.

For more information on our Thrive series with Champs, and to sign up for up-coming sessions, visit our what’s on page.