How can organizations foster psychological safety at the workplace?

Written by Nisha Chandran & Neelavani

In the last of the series on psychological safety at workplace, today we look at how organizations and leaders can foster and cultivate a psychologically safe workplace where every individual is valued and respected, thus bringing out the very best in them.  In this VUCA world, employees across the globe are required to manage economic, social and technological disruptions caused by the pandemic. Leaders need to acknowledge the challenges people are facing every day, otherwise, their communications (and other internal messages) may come across as under-informed and distant. 

While the benefits of psychological safety are well established,  fostering psychological safety begins with senior leaders developing and demonstrating leadership behaviors they want to see across the organization. Creating a culture of open communication, soliciting feedback and inputs from the team members, approaching conflicts with a collaborative mind-set and cultural sensitivity are important skill sets for senior leaders. In addition, it is important to create a positive, respectful climate where employees can express themselves without any fear. Promoting inclusive leadership skills among the next level of leaders and managers would be another critical aspect of creating a psychologically safe workplace.

In a virtual work environment, there are certain measures that the managers or leaders could take to ensure the active participation of everyone in a team, making them feel valued. Virtual team meetings should be a space for everyone to express and respond. Inviting inputs from employees for certain strategic or key organizational decisions could be one of the important steps for enhancing trust levels.  Recognizing individual accomplishments in the team meetings brings along greater involvement and contribution from the employees. Creating channels for raising complaints on inappropriate employee behaviour and empowering employees to use these channels can positively impact psychological safety.  Ensuring workplace flexibility and building trust is another important measure. Finally, the social interaction void can be filled in by allocating selected volunteers from the organization to check on the employees’ wellbeing.

A few practical tips that will help leaders nurture and reinforce psychological safety are:

  • Communicate meaning and purpose: Discuss about why the team exists and what it stands for.  To feel connected to the team, each person needs to understand why the team exists, how it works, and what it stands for.  As a group, leaders and employees must come together to recognize that everyone has clarity on organizational objectives and jointly owns the responsibility for succeeding, despite the many hurdles that might lie ahead.
  • Check alignment: Leaders must meet with individual team members and ask them how well they understand the team’s vision and goals, and how committed they are to achieving them.
  • Create connecting rituals:  Leaders must develop rituals to help their team members connect.  For example; connecting over an informal lunch every Friday.  Rituals help create bonding, security and familiarity during unsettling times.
  • Reach out often: It is important that leaders are democratic with their time and attention and deliberately reach out to all the members of their team.  Various research studies have shown that productivity increases when employees have a sense of belonging. Leaders must reinforce inclusion daily.  Diversity is core to innovation, and to harness the power of diversity, inclusion and thereby, psychological safety is non-negotiable.  Psychological safety, at its core, is about being able to be open, to share, and take interpersonal risks without the fear of repercussions.
  • Foster Independence and Ownership: Allowing subordinates to take ownership of their tasks is vital in creating a psychologically safe workplace.  Employees need to feel like they own their tasks and can accomplish it with minimal handholding or micromanagement.
  • Allow Learner safety: Working in high stress environments, employees are generally apprehensive of doing anything that they believe may affect their job security. Allowing employees to make mistakes and learn from them is key in creating an environment where team members look forward to learn new things and  take new initiatives.  Psychological safety does not mean being risk averse. As a matter of fact, it means making team members believe that risks are welcome, and that even some risks that do not pay off can be a lesson instead of a death knell for their career within the organization.
  • Remove barriers to workplace flexibility: Employees are aware their employers now know how productivity is possible outside of the office. During challenging personal situations, employees must be given the choice to take the time off or work reduced hours. This is important even during the current work from scenario. Such flexibility will enable employees to take time off peacefully or share the work load with their colleagues in a structured manner.

These steps will ensure that employees can safely share their concerns with the leaders and be their true selves at work.

Fostering psychological safety isn’t just a one off thing, it’s an ongoing process and commitment. If it is carefully cultivated and attended to, it will grow into a delicate, and delightful ecosystem. But it can also be easily damaged by neglect. Organizations that succeed in developing a psychologically safe work environment, will reap benefits that will positively impact organizational health and performance. Aristotle famously quoted ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’ and this perfectly describes the way teams collaborate and  work together for the greater good of the organization. However, it is possible only when they have a nurturing and safe environment where their creativity can grow wings.

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