By Shanna B. Tiayon
Although popular, as of late, the term psychological safety is a nebulous one. Few organizations understand what it is or how to achieve it. At Wellbeing Works, borrowing from academic research and our own research findings over the past several years, we define psychological safety as: An employee’s capacity to show up authentically, make mistakes, push back and ask for support without fear of negative consequences.
One thing we know for sure is that psychological safety is not a grassroots movement, whereby those in the lower levels of the organizational structure rise up, and create a psychologically safe work environment. Sounds great for a movie, but not a reflection of reality. Sure, all employees have a part to play in contributing to psychologically safety, but leadership is what creates and maintains it.
Psychological safety is a top down process, meaning it begins with and is reinforced by leadership. And when I say top down, I mean from the very head of the organization and those who report to them, down to lower level management. This point is sometimes a hard one for leaders to accept, that they are responsible for a lack of psychological safety in their organization, but let me explain why.
Valued Behaviors: Leadership dictates what is and is not accepted behavior in the organization, department or team by modeling and incentivizing valued behaviors and sanctioning behaviors that deviate from the values system. Lack of psychological safety is largely driven by internal behaviors emboldened by an internal values system that rewards such behaviors. A company’s values is not what appears on internal and external marketing materials, it’s the demonstrated pattern of what and who the company rewards.
Fear of Negative Consequences: Leaders also influence employees’ fear of negative consequences such as interpersonal or job related retaliation. Interpersonal retaliation can come from managers or peers and may include verbal attacks, ostracizing or reputational staining. If the manager demonstrates these behaviors, fear is heightened. If the manager is aware of but doesn’t address peers demonstrating such behaviors, fear is similarly perpetuated. Examples of job related retaliation include being fired, not being selected to work on a choice project or with a top client or being denied a promotion. Employees usually don’t fear a colleague will fire them or deny them resources, because peers typically do not have that authority.
Policies and Procedures: Lastly leadership is responsible for putting in place and enforcing the policies and procedures of the organization, both those that promote psychological safety and those that degrade it. In order to have a psychologically safe workplace the right behaviors must be valued and rewarded and there must be accompanying policies, procedures and systems that reinforce and promote a psychologically safe workplace.
Both the responsibility and the authority of the above rests on the shoulders of leaders, not employees. In most organizations employees don’t set the organizational norms, they align with the existing norms or leave when the norms do not correspond with their needs or values.
While psychological safety is not a grassroots movement, lack of it can start a grassroots movement in organizations. Most of the recent employee trends have been about employees leaving cultures that do not meet their needs: The Great Resignation, Quiet Quitting and a surge of employees voluntarily opting for part-time work in the U.S. The Great Resignation was largely triggered by cultural push factors, instead of the traditional salary and benefits pull factors of a new job offer. The foundation of Quiet Quitting was employees in need of support to address excessive workload, burnout and job creep, but not finding that support with their employer, thus taking the matter into their own hands and drawing hard workplace boundaries. The uptick in voluntary part-time work (and the trending interest in a 4-day work week) is also driven by issues of lack of employee support, where part-time work offers work-life synergy, reduced stress and increased flexibility that full-time employment in many companies do not. Recall the capacity to ask for support (and reasonably expect you will receive it) without fear of negative consequences is a key component of psychological safety.
So what can leaders do? You have all the tools at your disposal: promoting appropriate valued behaviors, minimizing fear of negative consequences and designing effective policies and procedures that support psychological safety. The first step is acknowledging there’s a psychological safety problem in your organization, some indicators may include: high turnover, lack of healthy debate among teams, a high percentage of employees attempting to cover up mistakes or employees unwilling to speak up and share ideas in the presence of management. The second step is to accept responsibility, whether you inherited the psychologically safety problem from a predecessor or you were at the helm of the company from the beginning and the problem evolved over time, there’s a higher likelihood of improving psychological safety in your company when the leader takes responsibility, opening up the possibility for organizational improvement.
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