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4 barriers to Psychological Safety and how to overcome them

4 barriers to Psychological Safety and how to overcome them

To attract, develop and retain a highly engaged, productive and happy workforce, it is important for organisations to invest in a psychological safe work culture. In this blog, we will highlight a few points of attention regarding psychological safety and give you some tips on how to cover them.

Definition of psychological safety

According to Amy Edmondson, professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School, psychological safety is the confidence that the environment is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. It is the belief that someone will not be punished, be criticised, or humiliated for, for example, speaking up mistakes, proposing new ideas, asking questions, or sharing divergent opinions.*
Every organisation strives for continuous improvement of performance and collaborations. Research indicates that the best organisational results are booked by well-coordinated, coherent, and diverse teams. Feeling psychologically safe within a team is important to ensure that individuals want to take personal risks to deliver excellent team objectives. Bringing on new ideas, giving constructive feedback, experimenting with new ways of working, communicating concerns, etc. can only occur when employees know that they won’t be punished for their behaviours.

The importance of psychological safety

Benefits of a psychologically safe working environment can be found at an individual, team, and organisational level:
On an individual level, the benefits of a psychological safe working climate are noticed in diverse areas such as stress reduction, a higher job satisfaction, and more self-confidence.
At the team level, the knowledge and talents of individuals are better used when there is a psychologically safe climate. Different perspectives are shared more frequently and there is space to express disagreements. Giving and receiving feedback also appears to be an important outcome.
On the organisational level, there’s a correlation between psychological safety and lower absenteeism and a higher retention rate. Data also reveals that creating environments of high psychological safety will make organisations more productive overall and have higher levels of customer advocacy.

4 barriers to Psychological Safety and how to overcome them

1. Comfort

Developing a psychologically safe working environment should not be confused with creating a comfortable workplace. In fact, too much comfort can lead to a reduction in psychological safety.
When employees feel too comfortable at work, there is a risk that they will fall into a kind of je m'en foutism, when trying to stimulate psychological safety (you can get interactions as lazy nods of agreement, agreeable shrugs, silence when asked directly for criticism...). This could lead to a lack of progress on both an individual and team level.
To strive for a psychologically safe environment, it is important to continue taking small interpersonal risks as a team, to accumulate a shared sense that it isn't that risky to be 'risky'. Tips for reducing that risk are:

  • Voice what you think the interpersonal risk is holding the person or group back. 
  • Acknowledge how small the risk or discomfort is.
  • Ask the room or a specific person for a different idea.
  • Be curious about a new idea and reflect on it out loud.
  • Express gratitude for speaking up.

2. Only focussing on celebrating achievements

Celebrating milestones within an organisation is a key element to keep employees satisfied. Celebrating both small and large successes gives a sense of appreciation and helps to keep employees motivated and engaged.
However, it is important not only to reflect on good moments, but also to pay attention to things that didn’t go as planned. When companies openly celebrate things that don't go well, workers' feelings of safety can be reinforced through observation and experience. It is important to take the following into account:

  • Provide a moment of reflection with all parties. 
  • Ensure that everyone feels comfortable to talk about what went wrong.
  • Think about how similar situations can be avoided in the future..

3. Misinterpretation of the term psychological safety

Nowadays, psychological safety is a topic that receives a great deal of attention within companies. However, the reason why organisations invest in this concept is often not very authentic. The term is misinterpreted or the motivation for investing in psychological safety mainly lies in the outcomes such as higher revenues, increased productivity, or fewer absences. It is important not to lose sight of the essence of psychological safety, namely: creating a workplace where everyone can be his or her identical self and where everyone feels good. Actions taken to enhance a psychologically safe climate should always focus on the latter.

4. Authoritarian leadership

Leadership styles influence the degree to which psychological safety is experienced in the workplace. Research shows that a good relationship with the manager reduces stress and increases mental and emotional well-being. Would you like to implement psychological safety within a team? Then you should avoid an authoritarian leadership style. This type of leadership has a negative impact on the extent to which employees experience a feeling of psychological safety. This is mainly due to the fact that the manager, in a certain sense, abuses his/her authority. Some tips we want to give concerning leadership are the following:

  • Try to implement a flat hierarchical structure 
  • Create a sense of inclusiveness and openness within teams
  • Listen to your employees to build trust
  • Be curious and show interest in your team members
  • Avoid micro-management
  • Stimulate autonomy

Curious to find out how to build a high-trust and psychologically safe working environment? Take a look at how we can support you in your journey towards a better workplace! Join one of our information sessions and start your journey HERE!

* Nembhard, I. M., & Edmondson, A. C. (2011). Psychological Safety.