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Creating a great workplace – ensure team psychological safety

A look at one of those phrases which has been around for a long time but is now in more common usage as its benefits for workplace wellbeing and productivity are more widely understood.

What exactly is team psychological safety and how does building it in the workplace benefit individuals, those who lead them and the organisation as a whole  ...  we offer a 5min read to help you find out.

What is team psychological safety?

The term is attributed to Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School. Over 20 years ago when examining data for her PhD studying the relationship in hospitals between error making and teamwork, she found that contrary to what she expected, hospital teams reporting better teamwork appeared to experience more errors. This led to her carrying out follow up research on the theory that a team was not necessarily making more mistakes than another but reporting them because they felt safe to do so.

Amy Edmondson describes the term as,

“A belief that the workplace is safe for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, and even mistakes. And it’s a sense of confidence that your voice is valued. You can think of this as a sense of permission for candour.”


Why psychological safety should apply to everyone in the workplace

Feelings of team psychological safety have been shown to lead to greater individual satisfaction at work, as well as better results for the organisation. So irrespective of whether an employee is a higher earner, lower earner, remote worker, or hybrid worker, building feelings of psychological safety for all is a valuable and productive exercise.

Recent headlines report that the level of staff sickness absence in the UK is at the highest level for more than a decade. Over three quarters of respondents to a health and wellbeing at work survey report some stress related absence, with heavy workloads and management style the most common causes. In light of this, surely any previously untried techniques to help create more mentally healthy and inclusive environments at work, where trust and openness is encouraged, should be welcomed.


What factors contribute to psychological safety at work?

Many assume that psychological safety will result in a nice, comfortable workplace for all, devoid of conflict. However, although benefits to individual's overall wellbeing will result, it is only natural that not all ideas will be liked or welcomed.

It requires a level of vulnerability and trust from all to feel able to contribute with frankness and openness. This is bound to feel uncomfortable initially. We have tended to be conditioned not to speak out and many need to get over the barrier of what we may consider impoliteness if we come from the school, “if you haven’t got anything positive to say, don’t say anything”.

So, the skill for a manager can be to instil trust and communicate the message compassionately. That it won’t necessarily feel comfortable at first, but that a hugely beneficial culture for all will develop if individuals in the team are committed and engaged to deliver excellence.

Psychological safety shouldn’t therefore be confused with psychological health but can make a direct contribution to it. Individuals who feel secure and supported are liable to feel less stress, anxiety, and generally experience better workplace wellbeing.

Conversely, where psychological safety doesn’t exist, there have been found to be adverse effects on employee wellbeing, such as stress and burnout. The negative consequences this can bring, not only for the individual but to their team and the organisation’s staff turnover rates, performance and reputation is well documented.


4 benefits of team psychological safety

  1. Members of the team will feel more stimulated and motivated – if there is a general understanding that all input matters and that speaking out is encouraged without fear of any penalty for doing so.
  2. Encourages a growth mindset culture – being open and feeling it is not only acceptable but encouraged to share and learn from mistakes, develops a culture of learning and progression.
  3. Improves decision making – with a wider range of voices being heard and reflected on, a greater diversity of thought can prevail in the decision-making process.
  4. Instils a more authentic workplace – where team members feel trusted and are able to bring their full selves to work.


How managers can build psychological safety for their teams

Managers are critical to feelings of psychological safety in their team members, but it isn’t an exact science and, as many discover, isn’t an automatic constant when team members change.

It’s also worth remembering that although managers can build feelings of safety, their behaviour can also lead to the detrimental feelings of psychological insecurity, making it all the more important for managers to adjust their style to ensure psychological safety for all.

Here are a few manager behaviours which can help instil psychological safety in teams:

  • Authentic vulnerability – managers sharing their own feelings and illustrating how they’ve learned from previous mistakes can help a more open culture develop as team members feel it is ok to have a voice and won’t be negatively judged for using theirs.
  • Consistency and fairness - setting clear standards and following them fairly, creates a perception of consistency and predictability.
  • Consult -asking for and explaining why team members views are important and will always be considered, helps build an inclusive, cooperative climate where team members feel listened to.
  • Support – if team members feel supported, both as employees and individuals, it can have the knock-on effect of them supporting each other. It also helps nurture a positive environment where honesty can prevail as individuals feel they won’t be mocked for their input.
  • Challenge – once the fear of making suggestions, mistakes and thoughtfully speaking one’s mind has been removed, a challenging leadership style can result with team member’s being happier to reassess their work, helping them be more creative and energised to increase their performance.
  • Appreciate – whether they end up being adopted or not, showing your appreciation for all contributions will encourage team members to feel comfortable in speaking up. If they all feel their input is valued rather than the request for input being just another gimmick, it will help engender trust and encouragement.

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