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Three Ways To Improve Psychological Safety

BY Michelle McQuaid

Every job involves some psychosocial (emotional and social) hazards that can increase the risk of work-related stress, harm our mental and physical health, and if prolonged, lead to burnout. So, how can we practically minimize this risk for ourselves and others as we work together?

The large population studies conducted by our team at The Leaders Lab have repeatedly found that workers who reported high levels of psychological safety – the belief that it safe to speak openly and honestly about problems – were more likely to report fewer experiences of psychosocial hazards. Why might this be the case? 

“Psychological safety can help to buffer us from psychosocial hazards at work by making it easier to be open with each other and talk about the risks we are encountering and how they can be navigated,” explained Dr. Amy Edmondson from Harvard Business School and the author of The Right Kind Of Wrong, when we interviewed her recently. “It allows us to share our perspectives about what is creating the hazards and work together to minimize or eliminate them.”

Studies have found that when we treat each other with respect and care it calms our brain’s threat system and lights up our reward system. This releases more of the calming hormone oxytocin which makes us more empathetic, trusting, co-operative and forgiving, and reduces our levels of anxiety and stress.

As a result, psychological safety facilitates our capacity for candor, vulnerability, and learning together. It helps us feel more confident about requesting improvements to the way our work is organized, calling out a lack of social support when encountered, addressing poor working conditions, and asking for help with difficult work experiences as they arise. 

For example: a longitudinal study by Google’s People Analytics Unit found that their highest-performing teams shared one norm: psychological safety. In these teams, people felt free to share the things that worried or concerned them without fear of embarrassment, rejection, or recrimination.  

So, how can we build psychological safety together?

Our sense of safety spreads through a complicated web of social connections meaning the work is both within and between us, at the:

  • ME” (INDIVIDUAL) LEVEL – When we have “personal portable psychological safety” we feel safe within ourselves no matter who we’re with, what we’re doing, or where we’re doing it. It frees us to be less dependent on the behaviors of others and the environments we are in because we understand that we are each perfectly imperfect. It makes it easier for us to ask for help, seek feedback, take risks, and own our mistakes because we believe there is no shame in learning.
  • “WE” (LEADERS + TEAMS) LEVEL – When we have “team psychological safety” we believe that it is safe to be honest and take risks as we work together. It frees us from the fear of being humiliated, rejected, or punished by anyone because we trust, respect, and care for each other. It makes it easier for us to ask questions, give each other feedback, be innovative, and to take shared accountability for our mistakes because we want to learn from each other.
  • US” (ORGANIZATION) LEVEL – When we have “organizational psychological safety” we can see that a culture of safety and care is prioritized. It frees us from the fear of being unfairly treated because our workplace’s values, norms, and systems (i.e. human resources, technology, finance, internal communications) are designed to signal a long-term investment in a mutually respectful relationship. It makes it easier for us to understand clearly what is okay and isn’t okay in our workplace and to hold ourselves, each other, and our workplace accountable.

For example, studies have found we need to individually learn and practice the skills of perspective-taking, inquiry, and compassion that make it easier to share our ideas and concerns (“Me” level). Then we need to practice having conversations within our teams where we can use these skills to integrate multiple perspectives on complex topics and generate novel solutions that are assessed for their effectiveness as we go (“We” level). And, our workplaces need to value, support, and celebrate these behaviors (“Us” level).

How are you supporting psychological safety conversations in your workplace to support each other’s mental health and wellbeing?

For a practical conversation guide to help, click here.

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