What exactly does psychological safety look like in an organisation? What drives it? What exactly are the benefits for the organisation? And finally, how can Zest help your organisation to create a climate of psychological safety? 

Challenging the status quo, suggesting new ideas or bringing up tough issues and problems in the workplace is not as simple as it seems. Such behaviours are risky for individuals. What happens if that idea you proposed doesn’t work out? Will you be seen as responsible for making that mistake? As workplace practices change and organisations increasingly look to their employees to voice their opinions and ideas, fostering an environment in which employees feel able to express themselves freely is crucial. Such a climate of “psychological safety” (a term coined by Edmondson, 1999 1) in turn has a variety of organisational benefits. 

 

What is psychological safety? 

Psychological safety refers to a work environment in which: 

  • People feel able to express their opinions and ideas freely, without fear of negative consequences. 
  • People feel able to take risks
  • People feel able to bring up tough problems and issues
  • People’s unique skills and talents are valued
  • People aren’t blamed or punished for making mistakes (blameless postmortem, Google 2)

 

We can consider psychological safety to exist at multiple levels: the organisational level, team level and within dyadic relationships (e.g. between an employee and their manager, see Figure 1). To measure this concept, Edmondson’s (1999 1) 7-item Psychological Safety Scale is by far the most popular, focusing on the team level. For example: 

To what extent to you agree or disagree with this statement: 

“If I make a mistake in this team, it is held against me.” 

Nevertheless, psychological safety can also be measured at the organisational level by, for example, replacing the referent team with organisation in the above statement. Individually held perceptions of psychological safety can be examined with regards to dyadic relationships (e.g. between the employee and the manager). For example : 

To what extent to you agree or disagree with this statement: 

“If I make a mistake, my manager holds it against me.” 

 

Figure 1.

So, why is a climate of psychological safety important? 

A climate of psychological safety has been proven to produce a variety of positive outcomes, both for teams and for the organisation as a whole. Here are some examples: 

  • Enhanced performance. Notably, Google’s Project Aristotle 2 identified psychological safety as the key dynamic setting apart high performing teams from the rest. The results demonstrated that how the team works as a whole is more important than who is on the team – for example, do individuals feel comfortable taking risks? 
  • Learning behaviour: noted at both individual and team levels 3, a culture of psychological safety enables individuals to learn from their mistakes rather than be blamed for them. 
  • Creativity & innovation: particularly at the team level, psychological safety has been shown to be positively related to innovation and R&D4
  • Giving and seeking feedback: giving honest feedback to supervisors and notifying them of errors made 5
  • Speaking up (voice behaviour): challenging the actions or decisions of supervisors 6
  • Open communication: specifically sharing knowledge amongst the team and reporting errors 7
  • Employee engagement: the more psychologically safe individuals feel, the more engaged they are in their work 8
  • Organisational commitment and turnover intentions: the more psychologically safe the work climate is, the more employees feel committed to the organisation and the lower their desire is to leave 9

For a full review on the many outcomes at the multiple levels, see Newman et al., (2017) 7

 

Psychological safety and Diversity & Inclusion (D&I)

Psychological safety is also essential for the success of Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) initiatives. By definition, a psychologically safe work climate is one in which people are able to speak freely without fear of negative consequences and are accepted for who they are as individuals. Studies highlight how, in order to reap the benefits of a diverse workforce (particularly regarding elevated rates of performance), a climate of psychological safety is crucial. In this sense, it can be considered a mediator in the relationship between diversity and employee performance 10

 

What are the drivers of psychological safety?  

In order to understand how to boost psychological safety within an organisation, we must first understand what drives it (see Figure 1). Just as we looked at how psychological safety exists at different levels, we can consider the drivers to also be present at all the aforementioned levels. 

 

At the organisational level

  • The presence of supportive organisational practices (for example, support for individuals returning to work after a long absence or access to mentoring schemes), 
  • Diversity practices and particularly, how individuals, notably those from minority groups, perceive such organisational efforts, 

… drive a climate of psychological safety within an organisation 7

 

At the team level

  • Team structure (the better defined the roles of leaders in the team, the division of tasks, work routines, procedures and priorities, the higher the level of psychological safety), 
  • Relationships between team members (can team members trust one-another? 8), 
  • Leadership practices such as shared leadership (i.e. sharing responsibilities or functions among team members 3) and leader inclusiveness (do managers listen to employees’ ideas? 6). 

… help to create a psychologically safe climate. 

 

At the dyadic level

  • Managerial/supervisor behaviours such as behavioural integrity (the consistency between what one says and what one does)

… also influences levels of psychological safety 11

Of course, individual differences, notably self-consciousness, inevitably play a role, such that self-consciousness is negatively correlated with perceived psychological safety 8

 

Recommendations: Zest me up! 

So what, concretely, can be done to help your organisation to facilitate a climate of psychological safety? Here’s a few ideas: 

 

 

  • First up, measure levels of psychological safety in your organisation: using the module “Listen – Surveys”. 

 

  • Check in regularly with your employees: through the use of the module “Listen – Mood”, allow individuals in the organisation (employees & managers alike!) to share how they’re feeling each day (anonymously or publicly). Additionally, before beginning a meeting, do a quick tour of the table to see what’s on people’s minds. 

 

  • Give your employees a voice: with the module “Share – Ideas”. Create a space for collaborators to share their ideas with the rest of the team and management. React to or comment on these ideas to show that your employees are being listened to (and ensure that these ideas are taken into account!). Asking for employees’ ideas, thoughts & opinions is one of the key ways to facilitate a culture of psychological safety. 

 

  • Encourage a feedback culture: make it regular and informal. Specifically, encourage a bottom-up feedback culture whereby collaborateurs feel able to share their opinions on management too. Provide a simple and easily accessible tool to both receive and give feedback anytime, anywhere with the module “Share – Feedback”. 

 

Conclusion

As organisations seek to gain the competitive edge in their industry, eliciting fresh and innovative ideas from the workforce is essential. Despite being a relatively new concept, research clearly shows that fostering an environment of psychological safety is the key. As outlined above, Zest offers a simple and effective solution to help your organisation to develop this climate and subsequently boost the performance, engagement, creativity (and much more) of your teams and company as a whole! 

 

References

1 Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative science quarterly, 44(2), 350-383

2 Google (2012). Project Aristotle. https://rework.withgoogle.com/print/guides/5721312655835136/ 

3 Liu, S., Hu, J., Li, Y., Wang, Z., & Lin, X. (2014). Examining the cross-level relationship between shared leadership and learning in teams: Evidence from China. The leadership quarterly, 25(2), 282-295.

4 Carmeli, A., Reiter-Palmon, R., & Ziv, E. (2010). Inclusive leadership and employee involvement in creative tasks in the workplace: The mediating role of psychological safety. Creativity Research Journal, 22(3), 250-260.

5 Wilkens, R., & London, M. (2006). Relationships between climate, process, and performance in continuous quality improvement groups. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 69(3), 510-523.

6 Bienefeld, N., & Grote, G. (2014). Speaking up in ad hoc multiteam systems: Individual-level effects of psychological safety, status, and leadership within and across teams. European journal of work and organizational psychology, 23(6), 930-945.

7 Newman, A., Donohue, R., & Eva, N. (2017). Psychological safety: A systematic review of the literature. Human Resource Management Review, 27(3), 521-535.

8 May, D. R., Gilson, R. L., & Harter, L. M. (2004). The psychological conditions of meaningfulness, safety and availability and the engagement of the human spirit at work. Journal of occupational and organizational psychology, 77(1), 11-37.

9 Chen, C., Liao, J., & Wen, P. (2014). Why does formal mentoring matter? The mediating role of psychological safety and the moderating role of power distance orientation in the Chinese context. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 25(8), 1112-1130.

10 Singh, B., Winkel, D. E., & Selvarajan, T. T. (2013). Managing diversity at work: Does psychological safety hold the key to racial differences in employee performance?. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 86(2), 242-263.

11 Palanski, M. E., & Vogelgesang, G. R. (2011). Virtuous creativity: The effects of leader behavioural integrity on follower creative thinking and risk taking. Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences/Revue Canadienne des Sciences de l’Administration, 28(3), 259-269.

 

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