3 ways leaders can create psychological safety within their team

Written by Amberlicia Anthony Thane, Consultant Analyst

An inclusive workplace is critical for fairness and DEI, but it also fosters employee engagement, increased productivity, and organizational commitment. The bigger question here is, how do you help employees to feel like they belong in your organization?

A simple answer is to focus on creating psychological safety within your team.

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety, in summary, is a climate in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves without the fear of being punished or having a negative impact on their self-image (Edmondson, 2004).

However, it is important to note that there is a difference between psychological safety and trust. Psychological safety focuses on self, whereas trust focuses on others (Edmondson, 2004). Therefore, trust does not always equate to psychological safety and vice versa.

Why is psychological safety important?

Various research has shown that a psychologically safe workplace helps foster a culture of respect and learning among colleagues and leaders. As stated by Edgar Schein, the feeling of being able to speak up with relevant ideas, questions, or concerns helps people cope with uncertainty and anxiety at work. It also helps in overcoming the defensiveness and ‘learning anxiety’ they may face, especially when something doesn’t go as they’d hoped or expected.

On the contrary, when fear is present within a workplace, people tend to be less supportive of each other and hold back ideas, which in turn causes productivity to suffer. Alleviating any concerns or anxieties for speaking up may be even more important if you’re a remote manager, but it should be a priority regardless of whether your team works under the same roof or is scattered across the globe.

3 tips to create psychological safety at work

Psychological safety is an integral part of developing productive teams and demonstrating effective leadership skills. It is very much shaped by leaders at work. As a start, here are three tips to build a psychologically safe workplace.

  1. Communicate with employees
  2. It is important that you begin by reminding people of the importance of the work they do and the purpose they serve. Be open about the challenges and uncertainties that lie ahead and communicate clearly and candidly about them. By doing so, you are giving employees the freedom and the forum to speak up on ideas and share their thoughts without fear of judgment.

  3. Invite engagement
  4. Allowing people to speak freely isn’t just about letting them blow off steam. It is also the time for you to discover and learn through this engagement. Put on your active listening hat to understand your team’s needs and ideas. Be humble enough to ask direct and open questions about how they think and what they feel. Once this psychologically safe climate has been established, you as a leader can focus on individuals. This communication chain will then continue to improve in one-on-one and team meetings.

  5. Respond productively
  6. Aside from listening actively, acknowledgement – like a simple nod or pat on the back – can go a long way after giving someone the opportunity to speak up. These expressions of genuine appreciation can be powerful and profound to void any negative impact on self-image for speaking up. Allow yourself as a leader to be welcoming and vulnerable with your team by permitting anyone to ask direct questions. Additionally, you should solicit and accept feedback, admit to mistakes, and lead by example.

    While companies have said for years that they value their employees’ input, many have fallen short of creating an environment that nurtures this process. Before you even try to solicit feedback, you need to create that psychological safety within your team. By conveying a genuine interest in their opinions and stressing that this is a ‘safe space,’ you will not only boost employee engagement but be on the way to bettering your organization as a whole.

Reducing turnover starts with hiring and developing great leaders

Although many believe unwanted turnover is difficult to fix, there are very clear ways to understand how it impacts your organization and what can be done to reduce it.

Organizations who have “solved” this problem do several things differently than their counterparts – and they all center on effective leadership.

As we all know, there are many reasons why employees leave. And some of this turnover should actually be categorized as “good turnover” (e.g. managing out poor performers).

However, as we research unwanted turnover, there is a common thread underlying the reasons people leave and it is directly tied to their relationships with their manager and other leaders within the company.

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