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 company. 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, which people feel belonged to the team, (2) Learner Safety, which people are able to learn through small mistakes and feedback, (3) Contributor Safety, which people feel comfortable to express their thoughts without fear, and (4) Challenger Safety, which people manage to challenge others’ ideas by coming up with a new one.

Recent studies have demonstrated that workplaces with high psychological safety produce significant benefits for both teams and organizations. First, people perform better with higher creativity and innovative behaviours at work. Without the fear of repercussion, they are more eager to contribute and experiment with novel ideas. Second, people build a healthy and long-term relationship with their managers. Given the open climate, people are less worried about being finger-pointed, and more willing to express their thoughts and feelings. This increasing candour strengthens their trust and support from their managers. Finally, people feeling psychologically safe tend to be more identified with and experience a stronger sense of belonging to the organisations. This lowers their turnover intention and bolsters talent retention in an organisation.

Considering the pivotal role of psychological safety, the focus now shifts from why to how. In HSM Advisory, five practical steps are proposed for managers 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’ 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 be fully benefited from the advantages of a diverse team, leaders and managers are encouraged not only to promote but also model inclusive mindset and behaviours such as showing curiosity, openness to experimentation and a nurturing attitude. This helps reduce the hierarchical distance with your people.

Immunity – Leaders and managers can empower your 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 for problem-solving, 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 your people’ 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 your people feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas without fear of retribution or criticism.

Read more about organisational health and wellbeing on HSM’s white papers here