Five Practical Steps to Create Psychological Safety

Earlier in January 2023, Sky News set up an email address for NHS frontline workers to share their work experiences. From hundreds of responses, there was a prominent trend indicating that health workers are afraid of speaking out the medical crisis due to the fear of repercussions. The results of Sky News’ survey of NHS workers were consistent with findings from another UK whistleblowing organisation. They found that 77% of NHS workers who reached out have experienced retaliation or unfavourable treatment for speaking up.

Cultivating psychological safety could be a remedy for this harmful culture that stops people from speaking out. In essence, psychological safety refers to a state where people are safe to express and experiment with their ideas without the fear of negative consequences. There are four stages that a team would progress through: (1) Inclusion Safety, where people feel a sense of belonging in the team, (2) Learner Safety, where people are able to learn through mistakes and feedback, (3) Contributor Safety, where people feel comfortable expressing their ideas without fear, and (4) Challenger Safety, where people feel they can challenge and build on the ideas of others.

Recent studies have demonstrated that workplaces with high psychological safety produce significant benefits for both teams and organisations. Firstly, people are more creative and innovative. Without fear of repercussion, people are empowered to contribute and experiment with novel ideas. Secondly, people are more able to cultivate healthy, enduring relationship with their managers. In the absence of blame culture, people are naturally more willing to express their thoughts and feelings across the hierarchy. Finally, people who feel psychologically safe tend to feel more connected to their organisation, incorporating some aspects of their role into their sense of self, bolstering talent retention.

Considering the pivotal role of psychological safety, the focus now shifts from ‘why’ to ‘how’. At HSM Advisory, we suggest five practical steps leaders and managers can take to create a psychologically safe workplace:

Initiate – Leaders and managers should take a proactive approach to soliciting feedback. This includes creating informal opportunities for conversations and initiating discussions about your people’s well-being concerns, rather than relying on vague invitations for opinions and ideas. By actively engaging with them in this way, leaders and managers can demonstrate a commitment to listening and responding to their people’ needs, which can help build trust and strengthen relationships.

Intimacy – This requires leaders and managers to minimise their institutional and attitudinal distances that typically separate them from their people. Shifting from a top-down distribution of information to a bottom-up exchange of ideas can facilitate an equal and adult-to-adult conversations with your people.

Inclusivity – To fully benefit from the advantages of a diverse team, leaders and managers are encouraged to promote and model an inclusive mindset – showing the curiosity, openness to experimentation needed to reduce the hierarchical distance with their people.

Immunity – Leaders and managers can empower their people by encouraging them to experiment, and viewing failures as valuable learning experience. When people have the freedom to try new things, they are more likely to come up with creative solutions, which are key to driving productivity and operational efficiency.

Intentionality – To foster a psychologically safe workplace, leaders and managers should provide candid feedback and follow-up on their people’s ideas and thoughts. Research has shown that when leaders acknowledge and respond to people’ suggestions, people are 19% more likely to speak up in the future. This can create a culture of psychological safety where people feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas without fear of retribution or criticism.

Read more about organisational health, psychological safety and wellbeing in our white paper here