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3 Ways to Improve Psychological Safety

Psychological safety at work is an imperative for organizations that value employee health.
By: | May 13, 2019 • 4 min read
Cropped shot of a group of people huddling together in a circle and showing thumbs up in the air

Employees who feel a sense of psychological safety at work are more likely to be engaged, productive and generating the innovative ideas needed to move an organization forward—but promoting that type of environment requires significant commitment on the part of the employer, a process that can be supported by HR leaders.

At a session at last month’s Health & Benefits Leadership Conference, Rachel Druckenmiller, director of wellbeing at national benefits-consulting firm Alera Group, emphasized the importance of psychological safety at work.

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“Fear stunts our analytical thinking, our ability to be creative; essentially, we’re ‘dumber’ when we’re operating out of a state of fear,” she told the audience, noting a fear-inducing environment activates the amygdala—the fear response in our brain—and we can only focus on surviving, not thriving.

From a business perspective, she said, an environment in which employees are too anxious to speak up or worried about humiliation stymies growth and innovation.

“People put on a mask and only show the parts of themselves they think someone else will approve of,” she said. In psychologically safe environments, however, “they can let their guard down. They’re not in self-protection mode, worrying about who they can trust—so they can problem solve and be creative. All positive things happen when we’re not focused on trying to protect ourselves.”

Druckenmiller cited three ways employers can get serious about improving the psychological safety of their workforces:

Awareness

Managers, as well as HR leaders, should understand the strengths and weaknesses of their employees—as well as their own. As an example, Druckenmiller cited a client she once worked with: a self-described “bulldog,” who was on a mission to become her company’s first female vice president. While she was speeding toward that goal, on an interpersonal level, “she was leaving everyone in the dust and had no idea of how she was being perceived,” said Druckenmiller.

The client worked with a coach, who met with some of the employees the woman’s worked with and managed to talk about her leadership. Consistent themes emerged from those conversations: Her team members felt she only looked out for herself, wasn’t a good listener and didn’t seem to value employee input, for instance. Through that 360 process, the client realized she had focused more on growing her department than on growing her people. She and the coach worked together to identify potential blind spots she may continue to struggle with, and the woman now keeps a list of reminders handy to help guide her interactions, Druckenmiller said.

Being a self-aware leader is critical to healthy organizational culture. If you want to create a psychologically safe workplace, be willing to turn the mirror on yourself, seek feedback and make changes accordingly.

Curiosity

Psychologically safe environments value curiosity over judgement, Druckenmiller said.

For instance, if a manager notices one employee responds to high-pressure environments with hostility, he or she should consider the context—such as that this person may have been raised in an environment with strict demands.

“Nobody came out of childhood unscathed, so maybe we can all have more compassion,” she said. “Difficult people are people who don’t feel safe, and sometimes all they need is just for someone to acknowledge that they’re doing something right.”

Managers and HR leaders should ask questions, listen attentively—using “door openers” like “Tell me more” and “Let me see if I got that right”—and respond with empathy.

Connection

Loneliness contributes to early death more than alcohol abuse, obesity and air pollution, Druckenmiller said—and the workplace is rife with it.

Managers and HR professionals can play a key role in combatting loneliness. Mandate device-free meetings, Druckenmiller suggested, as studies have shown that the mere presence of cell phones in a room stifles interpersonal connectedness and trust. “Unless you’re closing the hole in the ozone layer or curing cancer, you can wait an hour,” she said. “Take your Apple watch off.”

Survey team members about their interests and organize out-of-office excursions that people would actually want to go to, she added. “Connection and time together build trust, and trust is the foundation of psychological safety,” Druckenmiller said.

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Management style can also enhance connections. If a manager focuses on an employee’s strengths, there’s only a 1% chance he or she will actively disengage from work; if the manager focuses on a person’s weakness, there’s a 22% chance he or she will actively disengage—a number that jumps to 40% when the manager ignores the employee altogether.

“The extent to which someone feels valued, appreciated and seen affects how they engage with people and it affects their health,” she said.

 

Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected]

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