Speaking your mind out loud. Disagreeing with your manager and/or coworkers, and confidently proving your point. Suggesting ideas that may or may not be impossible to implement. All of that without being ridiculed, punished, or pointed at.
When reading this, some employees may think “wouldn’t it be great if…?” and go straight back to work. They know that’s not the way their superiors operate, so why bother?
This shows how insecure employees are about voicing their opinions in the workplace. Even asking a simple question becomes a source of apprehension when the concept of Psychological Safety isn’t well-understood in an organisation.
Without Psychological Safety, organisations will never achieve the level of innovation and engagement they seek.
According to author Shane Snow, feeling psychologically safe in the workplace means “knowing that the things you say and do won’t be used against you — as long as you mean well.” People who are part of an organisation should feel free to ask questions and voice their ideas, which shouldn’t be a reason for reprimand.
The Four Stages of Psychological Safety
Before they can feel free to contribute to the growth of an organisation, employees should, ideally, progress through four stages of Psychological Safety:
Inclusion Safety: If an employee doesn’t feel like they belong in an organisation, they’ll never work towards common goals. In order to be productive and willing to make a difference, they must feel safe to be themselves and know that they can make a difference.
Learner Safety: All stages of the learning process, including mistakes, should be encouraged. Without learning, there’s no growth. And if employees don’t feel safe asking questions, they won’t be able to improve their performance.
Contributor Safety: If an employee doesn’t feel like they’re contributing to any areas, they’ll be stuck in the cycle of “I’ll do what I have to do, then I’ll leave.” In contrast, when they can assure their contribution matters, they’ll want to reinforce that belief by doing better.
Challenger Safety: Challenging the status quo sounds like a distant dream for many employees. Even if they see improvement opportunities, they won’t let anyone know. If they only knew that their opinion is valuable, they’d make an effort to share their point of view out loud.
What Are the Benefits of Psychological Safety?
Think of how many potentially groundbreaking ideas your employees haven’t voiced, simply because they’re afraid of speaking up. Due to employees’ fear being scorned, ideas that could propel the company forward go to waste.
With Psychological Safety in place, that doesn’t happen. Because all constructive opinions, from anyone, are discussable.
A psychologically safe environment is critical for every goal you’ve ever dreamed to achieve within your organisation. Insights from management consulting firm McKinsey & Company reveal critical roles of Psychological Safety in leadership development. These include “improved innovation, experimentation, and agility to better overall organisational health and performance.”
In an internal study, Google has found that teams who had higher rates of psychological safety were ahead of other teams when applying diverse ideas and driving high performance. The reason being: these people feel like they’re heard and recognised. They feel like they belong – because they do.
The truth is, employees will only be able to contribute if they’re getting something out of this contribution. Before expecting them to do anything for the sake of the entire organisation, you first must ask yourself: “what’s in it for them?”
What Happens When There’s No Psychological Safety?
You don’t have to directly tell your employees “hey, your opinion doesn’t matter.” They can sense when it doesn’t. One bad experience is all it takes for them to assume that, if they were gone tomorrow, no one would even notice.
Employees want to be well-perceived. Not only by their manager but by their colleagues, as well. If they feel like a behaviour – be it making a complaint or a suggestion — will negatively impact how their team views them, they’ll stay in their lane.
Organisational Development Consultant Megan Martin asks an interesting question:
“What if you worked in an environment where you knew your ideas would be shot down or had a leader who had no interest in progressing or trying anything new?”
If that was the case, would you even attempt to stand out in the workplace? Probably not.
Lack of Communication
Data from Gallup shows that just three in 10 U.S. workers agree that their opinions seem to count at work. Making employees feel like their ideas don’t count is the recipe for an increase in turnover and reduced productivity.
The reason? A paralysing fear of rejection.
Anyone would avoid interacting when they could be penalised for saying something. In order to stay “safe” (knowing that “safety” holds a completely different meaning here), they’d rather say nothing at all.
In the same research, when six in 10 employees felt like their opinion mattered, Gallup found organisations had a 27% less turnover, 40% less safety incidents, and a 12% increase in productivity.
Less Contribution, Less Innovation
If your team finds that they can’t do their jobs without receiving a negative response, they won’t do their best to contribute. It’s as simple as that.
In an environment where employees feel like they’re replaceable, it’s easier for them to get bitter and do just the bare minimum until it’s time to turn off their laptops. And it’s not fair to blame them for acting this way.
“Us vs. Them” Mentality
In the words of Organisational Psychologist Dr. Nicole Lipkin, “humans favour and strive to enhance the status of the groups to which they belong. This means conferring superiority on our group and inferiority on all others.”
This, in turn, creates what we know as the “us vs. them” mentality in the workplace.
This type of mentality will switch employees’ focus from innovating, doing better work, and offering better customer experience to worrying about what so-and-so is doing. Although some level of competition is healthy, workplace conflict should be nipped in the bud. This kind of nitpicking isn’t worth anyone’s time.
This is why, according to McKinsey & Company, interpersonal skills training should begin at the top of the organisation. If leaders don’t represent the values they want to see across the company, there’s no way employees will act accordingly.
What Kind of Results Can You Get When Psychological Safety is High?
According to the Harvard Business Review, “studies show that psychological safety allows for moderate risk-taking, speaking your mind, creativity, and sticking your neck out without fear of having it cut off — just the types of behaviour that lead to market breakthroughs.”
The prospect of gathering a high-performing team without Psychological Safety is unlikely. Organisations that aren’t psychologically safe may object, stating that their team’s performance is up to – or above – industry standard. The leaders in question may, then, be applying Psychological Safety principles without labelling them as such.
Only a team that feels safe taking risks and challenging the status quo can be highly innovative. There’s no way around it.
How Can Teams Benefit From Psychological Safety?
Would you like to know how teams at Google guarantee their success? Just ask Google’s People Operations.
Back in 2015, they went on a mission to answer the following question: “What makes a Google team effective?”
After conducting over 200 interviews with their employees and analysing over 250 attributes of 180+ active Google teams, here’s what they found:
“Individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives.”
According to the research, fostering a “positive team climate” is the catalyst for their teams’ Psychological Safety. That’s because a relaxed environment allows every team member’s inputs, as well as valuing everyone’s contributions.
Although both collective and individual safety are essential for growth, individual safety must come first. After all, one person’s successful performance has the power to influence the performance of those around them.
What’s Your Excuse Not to Implement Psychological Safety Today?
A psychologically safe work environment could be the ultimate turning point for any organisation, big or small. Cultivating an environment in which people are comfortable expressing their ideas could be the gateway to unprecedented growth.
Never underestimate the power of making your employees feel seen and heard. You could be in a room with some of the most creative and innovative people you’ve ever met. It’s your job to help unleash their greatness – and give them a chance to work with you, instead of for you.