Psychological Safety: Creating the Respectful Workplace

April 7, 2021

People in workplaces are high performers when they feel empowered, equipped, self-expressed, and respected. When diverse views and voices are honored and included, creativity and innovation flourish, people thrive, and profitability soars.

Psychological safety is present in the workplace when people believe that they are free to speak up and share their ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. When people feel unsafe, fear punishment, and/or retaliation, humiliation, discrimination or alienation in response to their self-expression, the workplace is psychologically unsafe. Productivity, performance, and profitability are all in jeopardy when team members do not feel safe to speak freely.

To ensure psychological safety is to have people feel comfortable voicing their opinions and fearless of being judged. Teams develop a safe environment when a few ground rules are created as to how they interact with one another. These could be for example:

  • Do not interrupt one another other
  • Allow all ideas to be accepted equally and never judged
  • Never place blame, encourage honesty
  • Out of the box suggestions are encouraged and listened to

Here are five ways of being that leaders can create and nurture in the workplace to create the safety that is desired.

Treat everyone with respect

Regardless of position in the organisation, it matters that leaders first, and then their teammates, are respectful, thoughtful and considerate of one another. When it comes to psychological safety, treat others as they’d like to be treated. Take the time to ask your team members and direct reports what they’d prefer regarding things like frequency of check-ins, style of communication, and type of feedback. Make sure that people know what is considered respectful behavior and what is disrespectful behavior.

“If you’re a great manager or leader, you shouldn’t be operating from the point-of-view of what you want, you should be operating from the point-of-view of what others want.”  Interpersonal risk taking becomes far less risky if you know what others want and how they prefer to be treated.

Welcome curiosity and be willing to “not know”

Nurturing a curiosity culture allows for a learning environment that is constructive, creative, and team building. In some workplace settings, employees feel shame and humiliation when they “do not know” the answer, the solution. In that case, it is easier to hide and lie rather than be honest and forthright. Being curious allows for people to be present to a journey of discovery, creativity, better communication, and a more agile and adaptive workforce. When the team arrives at obstacles, they overcome them more effectively and quickly.

Promote healthy dialog

Conflict might be considered one of the riskiest interpersonal endeavors in a workplace and as such, leaders should strive to create conditions for the healthiest form of conflict. The sharing of ideas that are different should be encouraged and protected. Also, ensuring people debate the ideas and not the person helps keep the dialog respectful. “I disagree with your proposed solution” is different from “I disagree with you”. Encourage trust and mutual respect to create the safe, comfortable workplace.

Give employees a voice

Placing draconian restrictions on employees is a detriment to psychological safety, especially rules or infrastructure that limit communication. To overcome this, create liberal pathways to leadership, provide channels for feedback, and encourage conversation.

“Upward communication can be a vital force in helping contemporary organisations learn and succeed; by speaking up to those who occupy positions to authorize actions, employees can help challenge the status quo, identify problems or opportunities for improvement, and offer ideas to improve their organisations’ well-being.” [Sources

Encourage the journey, not the destination

Emotionally secure employees are more engaged, productive and innovative. Leaders who focus on the quality of the day-to-day work experience do not need to have a rigid focus on the outcome. Empowered people produce results. When leaders reduces threats people feel inside the group, those people are free to focus more time and energy to protect the organisation from the constant dangers outside and focus on high-performance. Build a culture around taking risks, where all ideas are encouraged and unpredictable paths are embraced.

Pam Jackson, PhD


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