By Melissa Mangano
Six months ago, our biggest pre-workday concerns were as simple as “How much traffic will I hit this morning?” (spoiler alert: I commuted in Los Angeles). Now, however, our concerns run deeper. As many of us sit at our kitchen tables balancing team meetings with washing our breakfast dishes, feelings of fear, uncertainty, and insecurity are likely more pervasive than ever.
Have you noticed that your employees are less vocal than they were in an office setting? Is healthy dialogue and collective contribution still occurring, or is it few and far between? Do you feel as though your employees are still present and engaged, despite only seeing their faces through a computer screen?
If your employees aren’t speaking up, you are missing out on potential new ideas, opportunities, and collaborations. If teams aren’t comfortable voicing concerns – both personal and professional – your company is vulnerable to detrimental risks and setbacks. Without open discussion and collective trust, employees are less likely to think strategically and cultivate the creativity and innovation that is necessary for market breakthroughs that will propel your business forward.
As we continue to work towards adjusting to this new normal, leaders must ask: how have recent changes impacted my company culture, and what can I do to address and strengthen this moving forward?
As a leader, the behaviors you exude set a precedent that directly impacts your company culture; as an employee, the way you respond to such behaviors lays deeper roots for this cultural foundation. Building awareness around the development and improvement of these behaviors is increasingly imperative.
The secret lies in building a workplace culture rooted in Psychological Safety. Leaders must begin – or continue – to humanize connections and build a safe workspace that enables employees to work through change together.
By understanding what psychologically safety is, what leaders can do to help foster it, and how teams can be built to support and sustain a psychologically safe culture, companies can begin to instill a sense of trust and calm amidst continuous change.
What Is Psychological Safety?
In 2015, when Google set out to answer what makes a work team most effective, “Psychological Safety” took center stage. Google’s people analytics team found that psychological safety was the number one factor that separated high performance teams from their lower-performing counterparts. Employees who were members of teams reporting high psychological safety were, (1) less likely to leave the company, (2) more likely to foster diverse ideas in team collaborations, (3) more likely to produce higher revenue, and (4) rated as effectives twice as often by executives.
So, what exactly is “Psychological Safety?” Remember when we mentioned working in places full of fear, uncertainty, and insecurity? Psychological safety is essentially the opposite.
Simply put, psychological safety is, “A shared belief that it’s okay to take those interpersonal risks that are required to make the next breakthrough. It’s also a climate where it’s safe to make and be open about mistakes, learn from those experiences, and challenge the status quo” (BlueEQ, 2020).
Not only can a culture of psychological safety grant employees a sense of stability in an unstable world, but it is also a critical factor in driving business bottom line.
Like all great things, however, psychological safety does not happen overnight. It takes work.
Psychological Safety Starts With A Leader’s Awareness
While many frequent flyer miles are currently lying dormant, we can still probably recall being instructed to, “put on our own oxygen masks before helping those around us.”
Much like it’s difficult to help others breathe before we can breathe ourselves, it is also difficult to instill psychological safety in others before a personal practice has been established. Like any major initiative, this needs to start from the top. Leaders must begin with self-reflection.
Amy Edmondson, Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School, wrote an incredible book called, “The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth,” in which she poses questions for leaders to begin thinking about the level of (or absence of) psychological safety that exists within their workplace:
- Are employees comfortable asking about things they don’t know or don’t understand? Do they ask for help when needed?
- Do employees feel comfortable raising difficult issues in team meetings? Is there room for healthy debate?
- When mistakes are made, do people avoid and misplace blame, or embrace this as an opportunity for learning?
- Do all employees feel welcome to contribute during meetings, despite rank or job title?
- Are employees encouraged to contribute in ways outside of their specific role parameters?
- How much do employees know about other team members outside of the workplace?
To begin building collective psychological safety, leaders must first understand how these contributors play into their individual roles, as well as team behaviors.
Psychological safety is nourished by a leader’s emotional intelligence. Through gaining this awareness, admitting personal challenges, and setting the stage for listening and support, leaders can determine how the rest of their team will show up.
Once self-awareness is gained, collective awareness can then begin to be built.
Building Psychological Safety Into Your Company Culture
Now, more than ever, we all feel vulnerable. Now, more than ever, we want to feel trusted and supported. Forming a culture rooted in psychological safety takes collective, active work. An entire team needs to be on board if it is going to sustain.
This work begins by giving employees permission to speak their truth.
As a leader, this phase is less about conducting, and more about actively listening. Active listening means eye contact, shutting laptops when in person, and putting phones away when on Zoom. A great way to show active listening is by recapping what has been said, and opening up room for clarification to ensure all members of a team are on the same page.
Organizational hierarchy poses a threat to psychological safety when employees, hyper-aware of status differences, became cautious of superiors. When leaders make it clear that are all welcome to voice opinions – and these opinions are openly received, despite position – psychological safety can thrive.
Continue this build and continue to promote open lines of communication by facilitating reflective conversations. When making decisions, include your team in the process. Encourage inputs by asking questions that require answers and explicit feedback. Encourage healthy conflict, as healthy conflict ultimately leads to better collective decisions. When decisions are reached, explain the Why behind them; everyone won’t always agree, but transparency shows that inputs have been heard, and will help to build trust and understanding.
Employees feel more comfortable and engaged in roles if they hold the belief that the team is safe for prudent risk-taking. Understand that mistakes will happen, and encourage this behavior by focusing on solutions rather than blame. Placing blame is the surest way to augment conflict and push people towards disengagement. Respond appreciatively, and involve yourself in solutions by using collaborative language. Avoid negativity at all costs.
Lastly, champion your team by giving credit where credit is due. One of the best ways to build hope and engagement within your team is by letting them know the positive impact they have made.
Trust Is Your #1 Currency
Workplace conditions are going to be changing for the foreseeable future. While there are many things beyond the realm of our control, the level of safety that employees feel in daily roles does not have to be one of them. When summarizing the pivotal effects that psychological safety can play in a corporate culture, Harvard Business Review powerfully reiterates: “We become more open-minded, resilient, motivated, and persistent when we feel safe.”
Psychological safety will not only bring your team together, but it will be the catalyst that leads to market breakthroughs and continuous growth and development.
In a time of crisis, trust is your number 1 currency. Let psychological safety help you get there.
Melissa Mangano is a Consultant at nepf, LLC and focuses on helping organizations transform.