Why it’s essential to have a psychologically safe team

When you think about it, you spend more time at work (even virtually) than anywhere else during the day. So, imagine how uncomfortable it would be to not feel like your workplace is a safe environment for your ideas, work ethic and mental health.

I’ve been doing a series of diversity and inclusion articles for B2B Marketing and one phrase I see being tossed around is teams being ‘psychologically safe’ in the workplace.

Psychological safety is the idea that your team feels they can be themselves at work, that they can make mistakes and they don’t feel threatened. Harvard business professor Amy Edmonson cited psychological safety as a key attribute in high-performing teams. Amy did some research studying medical teams to see which type of teams perform the best. She was shocked to learn that the ones who made more mistakes along the way were the ones who outperformed the teams that were more cautious.

To put that into perspective, imagine one employee who tip-toes around everyone and constantly has to walk on eggshells versus another employee who feels absolutely comfortable sharing their ideas, regardless of what others might think.

This is why it’s so important for teams to feel psychologically safe. Employees need to feel like they can bring their whole selves to work so they can bring their most creative, innovative ideas, feel comfortable speaking at meetings and much more.

Amy identified the following six traits of psychological safety:

1. Being true to their unique self

Allow all employees to be themselves on both a personal and professional level because, if they’re not, it can hold them back in their work. According to a Deloitte DEI 2021 Report, about 61% of the workforce feel like they need to cover up aspects of their life in front of their colleagues.

Be sure to check in and see how your employees are coping. If you’re being vulnerable and authentic to your employees, they’ll feel the freedom to be able to do the same. That also sets up a positive trajectory for good communication in the future.

2. Asking for help frequently

In today’s virtual day and age, over communicating is never a bad thing, especially if it means your employees asking a simple question just to clarify something they’re unsure of. You want your employees to feel comfortable and confident coming to you.

So when they do go to you with a question, always make sure you’re giving them the freedom to ask whatever they like – no matter how silly the question may sound. If you make them feel uncomfortable, the likelihood of them returning to you again is much slimmer.

3. Having tough conversations

At our Leadership Forum in 2019, Helen Tupper did a session all around cultivating a growth mindset. One thing she cited was having a team who feels psychologically safe. One piece of advice she gave was to have sit-down mistake meetings to discuss what might’ve gone wrong that month or how mistakes can be prevented. These types of conversations are not designed to make sure everything goes perfectly. It’s to guarantee that mistakes aren’t hidden moving forward.

4. Acceptance of risk

Like Amy had cited, teams performed better when they were making mistakes. That’s because they’re in an environment where they’re allowed to mess up. However, studies repeatedly show that employees tend to overestimate the consequences to risks, so they tend to revert to more conservative or safe ideas. To make employees feel safe, welcome big ideas. Be sure to say your own big ideas and encourage others to ‘think out loud’ as well during meetings.

5. Having constant support for each other

Employees will feel better around their managers if they feel constantly supported. That means asking them about their personal lives to make sure they are mentally okay, but that can also mean in a professional sense too. During one-on-one meetings or employee reviews, ask about their professional aspirations and how you can help them achieve it.

6. Utilising one another’s individual strengths

If your employee has trouble in certain areas, you can certainly address it, but be sure to also celebrate their strengths. When you’re offering criticism, be sure to also mention what went right before going into the critiques. Capitalising on what your employees are good at will make them feel more comfortable and you’ll also learn how to utilise their own strengths to your advantage.

When your teams feel psychologically safe, it’ll show, which means those HR statements on your job boards that state ‘We support our staff’ or ‘We are an inclusive workplace’ are actually true! A lot of companies put out statements as a requirement, rather than as an active effort to provide more safe spaces in the workplace.

Once you start prioritising your employees’ psychological safety, you’ll start to become more aware of their habits, as well as your own. Maybe you’ll realise you’re constantly focusing on the negative, instead of on some of your employees’ wins. Or perhaps you’ll realise you’re not checking in on your employees’ mental health. Either way, this is what growth looks like as it’s never too late to course correct.

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