The concept of safety in the organizational context emphasizes creating a work environment where individuals feel comfortable expressing their ideas and concerns.
Recent studies have shown a connection between psychological and physical safety. “Psychological safety” refers to the extent to which individuals believe they can take risks without facing humiliation, rejection or punishment. This can contribute to improved mental and physical wellbeing, increased productivity and creativity, and enhanced teamwork and collaboration—while its absence can lead to increased stress, anxiety and burnout.
What does psychological safety mean?
Psychological safety, a term coined by Amy Edmondson in 1999, is “a shared belief among team members that the team’s a space for interpersonal risk-taking.” This means that individuals within an environment feel comfortable taking risks and making mistakes.
There are four critical characteristics of psychological safety:
- Individuals believe in their colleagues’ trustworthiness and are trusted.
- Individuals feel comfortable expressing thoughts, sharing ideas and giving feedback.
- Team members collaborate to find solutions and advance shared goals.
- Individuals feel supported by their colleagues.
When employees feel psychologically safe, they are more inclined to take calculated risks, think creatively, actively contribute to the team’s success, seek assistance, and acknowledge and learn from mistakes. In contrast, those who feel psychologically unsafe tend to remain silent, avoid taking risks and conceal errors. This can have effects on innovation, decision-making processes and overall productivity.
Psychological safety plays a role in maintaining an efficient workplace. When individuals feel secure enough to take risks, express their opinions openly and actively contribute, they are more likely to be engaged, productive and professionally satisfied.
The importance of psychological safety in reducing stress and anxiety
Psychological safety plays a role in mitigating stress and anxiety. When individuals feel secure and supported (and thus, valued and respected), they are less likely to experience stress or anxiety, which can lead to symptoms like headaches, muscle tension and fatigue. Chronic stress and anxiety can contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease and depression.
Psychological safety can directly impact physical safety on a large scale. For example, airline pilots and crew members are encouraged to express safety concerns without fear of reprisal. This culture of openness and support has led to enhancements in airline safety.
Likewise, the healthcare industry has witnessed how fostering psychological safety improves patient outcomes. When healthcare professionals feel at ease sharing their concerns and ideas, they become more effective at identifying and addressing safety issues, thereby improving care and outcomes.
As these examples show, recognizing the link between psychological safety, physical safety and overall wellbeing is essential for HR leaders.
Exploring the organizational benefits of psychological safety
Psychological safety can also improve team dynamics, organizational culture and overall employee performance. And with reduced stress and anxiety, psychological safety can also reduce the risk of health issues like disease, obesity, diabetes and depression among employees, ultimately saving the employer money.
Psychological safety encourages individuals to take risks and share ideas, fostering creativity and innovation. When individuals feel secure in expressing their thoughts, they are more likely to offer valuable insights. This leads to high-functioning team performance, greater job satisfaction and increased productivity.
When individuals feel psychologically safe, they are more inclined to collaborate and support one another, resulting in improved problem-solving, enhanced decision-making and stronger teamwork.
Creating a supportive environment
To cultivate a supportive environment, it is vital that HR adopts builds trust, empathy and openness—with the active involvement of leadership.
Here are strategies that can facilitate the development of confidence, compassion and openness:
- Listen: Encourage listening by providing training sessions emphasizing clear communication expectations and covering techniques such as paraphrasing and asking clarifying questions.
- Provide feedback: Regularly provide feedback to employees to help them enhance their performance and promote growth. Feedback should address behaviors and outcomes rather than individual traits.
- Encourage creativity: Create opportunities for individuals to engage in thinking and brainstorming sessions. Demonstrate that innovative ideas are welcomed and valued.
Leaders play a role in nurturing safety within an organization. By prioritizing safety, leaders set the tone for an open and encouraging organizational culture. Here are strategies that leaders can employ to promote safety:
- Lead by example: Leaders should exemplify the behaviors they wish to see in others, such as demonstrating empathy, actively listening and providing feedback.
- Encourage team building: Leaders can promote collaboration and foster community within the organization through team-building exercises, social events and other initiatives that unite people.
- Provide training: Offer training sessions to managers and supervisors on listening, conflict resolution and practical communication skills.
One significant hurdle HR may encounter in creating a more psychologically safe environment is employees’ fear of being vulnerable. Many people hesitate to express their thoughts and emotions because they worry about appearing weak. Additionally, there is a concern that sharing one’s feelings might lead to consequences like exclusion or career setbacks.
To address these challenges, cultivate a culture that values vulnerability and encourages openness. Leaders can lead by example by sharing their experiences and creating a space for others to do the same. HR can also offer training on the benefits of vulnerability and how to foster a culture of openness.
Another impediment is fear of conflict, which many employees avoid at all costs, fearing it will harm their relationships or have other negative outcomes. To overcome this challenge, HR can provide training on conflict resolution skills, encouraging understanding and collaboration. Again, leadership by example is critical—address issues early and encourage open discussion.
Another obstacle is resistance to feedback. Many worry that feedback will be harmful or detrimental to their self-esteem. However, feedback is crucial for professional growth.
To overcome this challenge, HR should cultivate a growth mindset that views feedback as a chance for learning and progress. Provide training on giving and receiving feedback effectively, including among company leadership.
Psychological safety plays a role in promoting physical safety and overall wellbeing. This is particularly relevant in today’s fast-paced and complex world, where stress and anxiety are prevalent. Both individuals and organizations must prioritize trust, empathy and open communication. Organizational leaders, particularly in HR, should set an example by displaying these behaviors and offering resources for education and training. Establishing and maintaining a culture of safety requires dedication and effort, but the dividends it pays are invaluable.