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Psychological safety at the workplace

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, Harvard professor Amy Edmondson coined the term ‘team psychological safety’ in the context of learning behavior. She defines it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” For many years since, the idea did not take off in mainstream workplaces.


However, in the last few years, workplaces worldwide have evolved dramatically. Hybrid working models have taken away some of the non-verbal cues and understanding. Gen Z seeks more than just job satisfaction and good pay; they demand creativity, purpose, social responsibility and justice at work. The problems facing the world today — fake news, climate crisis, public health etc. — need radically different solutions. For innovation to thrive in such a place and time, teams need to take risks.


To take risks, teams need psychological safety. Think about your workplace or team and answer the following questions:


  • Do you feel the team brings out the best in you?


  • Can you fearlessly speak your mind?


  • Can you always be yourself? 


  • Are you able to admit your mistakes openly?


  • Do you feel heard and appreciated? 


If the answer to any of these questions is no, you are not in a psychologically safe workplace and that can have dire consequences. The human brain is wired for safety. At work, feelings of lack of respect, appreciation, fairness, credit etc., can greatly impact performance. It is the responsibility of the organization, leadership and managers to create an environment of psychological safety. And here’s how you can do that.

Develop a sense of inclusion and belonging among team members


The first step in psychological safety is to feel included. Only when we are seen, welcomed and understood by our colleagues can we participate wholeheartedly. To develop a sense of belonging in the team, listen to everyone’s viewpoint. Value their efforts regularly. Offer them help in tough times.


Remember that inclusivity is not about treating everyone the same. So, do not generalize and always only speak for yourself. For instance, instead of saying, “That’s an easy task” say, “I find this task easy but I’d like to hear what others have to say.” This seeking-approach helps one understand each individual’s experience. 


Respond with empathy


Just like not everyone is the same, not every day is the same. People show up at work with different states of mental well-being. So, empathy is absolutely non-negotiable. A meaningful way to be empathetic is to be mindful of our language and its impact on the other person. For instance, instead of the confrontational approach where one might say, “Your code is quite bad and not what I expected” say, “I know that you are capable of writing great code. Let’s figure out what happened this time.” This manner of checking in with each other on their state of mind and creating a space for team members to discuss their mental health without fear of judgment is a move in the right direction.


Invite diverse views


Welcome different perspectives, and when people offer them, disagree with respect. People tend to cushion their ideas when they fear judgment. For instance, they might say, “this is probably a silly idea,” or “this may be a dumb question.” Reassure them that all ideas are welcome. 


Watch out for groupthink — the tendency of the minority to stay silent in order not to upset the majority. Invite opinions from everyone. Appreciate unpopular views, even if you disagree. It shows you value diversity in thought. 


Speak up and let others speak up


As simple as it seems, speaking up isn’t easy for everyone. Some might be shy. Some might have difficulties speaking the common language. Some might have had negative experiences speaking up in the past. With some nudging and encouragement, everyone will speak up.


Actively invite opinions from everyone. Have a ‘no interruption’ rule, i.e., when one person is speaking, no one is allowed to talk in between. Being interrupted or cut off discourages not just the speaker but also others from sharing their thoughts next time. Have 1:1s or smaller group conversations for those uncomfortable speaking up in large groups. When you present, pause for questions and feedback. Give others also a chance to speak up. 


Often, people confuse being mindful of others’ feelings and reactions to tripping over oneself to be nice. Psychological safety isn’t about being nice. In fact, many of these conversations can be contentious, too. Psychological safety is about creating a space for every team member to be candid, transparent and open to feedback so they can innovate without fear. It is about nurturing the diversity you’ve worked hard to create in your organization.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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