Understanding Psychological safety at the workplace- Part I

Written by the Centre of Excellence team at Avtar

Psychological safety at the workplace refers to the experience of employees being able to authentically express themselves in their work environments. This stems from a strong foundation built on trust that an employee has on his/her/their employer and the subsequent sense of reassurance that they have they would not be punished or would not have to face retaliation/dire consequences for expressing themselves. The concept was propounded, researched on, and popularized by Harvard Business School, Professor Amy Edmondson.

When employees feel psychologically safe, they are at ease being themselves, taking up responsibilities and demonstrating ownership, and are also able to communicate transparently to their teams and leaders, in turn demonstrating high levels of productivity and effectiveness. Psychological safety is crucial to creating positive employee experiences, boosting employee morale, and heightening their engagement levels. It also is closely linked to inclusion and belongingness as these dimensions of employee experience thrive in a psychologically safe work environment. As employees are able to express, challenge, and take risks in psychologically safe set-ups, innovation and creativity in teams improve, benefitting businesses.

Psychological safety at the workplace has been broadly classified into three main categories by United Nations Organization:

Learner Safety: When there is Learner Safety, a team member feels safe to learn, ask questions, give and receive feedback, experiment, and make mistakes. An unsupportive work culture where team members operate in defensive mode can disrupt the learning process.

Contributor Safety: When there is contributor safety, the team is given autonomy and accountability in exchange for results. In many cases, women’s contributions are suppressed or taken without reciprocal acknowledgment. Leaders and influencers can act to shift cultures like this by first being honest and intentionally acknowledging the contribution of women.

Challenger Safety: The safety to challenge the status quo. When arguments can be discussed on their merit and not on the assigned or perceived merit of the person proposing the argument, true innovation can emerge.

Examples of Psychologically Unsafe Behaviors at the Workplace

While organizations implement robust policies and rulebooks towards building employee etiquette in a workplace, more often than not, incidents of derogatory behaviors are reported, which are considered unsafe for the psychological safety of the employees victim to the incidents. Bullying, Harassment, and retaliation on part of co-workers, supervisors, or managers are considered as unsafe behavioral traits which are considered unsafe for the employees. These behaviors are not only detrimental to an employee’s psychological well-being, many countries have legal statutes making them punishable offenses.

Examining in-depth, Bullying is a form of repeated incidents of aggression, physical or verbal, that can psychologically hurt a person by offending or humiliating them. Different from bullying, Harassment is defined as unwelcome conduct that amounts to debilitating treatment based on race, color, religion, gender, health status, etc. Retaliation on the other hand, as defined by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as “when an employer takes an adverse action against an employee because the employee engaged in protected activity, such as raising a concern about a workplace condition or activity that could harm the safety, health or well-being.” Retaliation can take the form of a worker being fired, losing out on bonuses, or a deserved promotion, having hours or pay reduced, or being ostracized or mocked.

Many organizations have instituted whistleblower policies and have grievance redressal channels for employees to escalate complaints.

Detecting Psychological safety at the workplace

In order to assess if one is operating in a psychologically safe environment, you can ask yourself if you have ever felt the following at your workplace:

  • Uncomfortable sharing your opinions, thoughts, and ideas
  • Felt inferior because of your designation to share your ideas
  • Felt embarrassing to speak up in a meeting or putting forward your thoughts
  • Felt that your opinions won’t be considered even if you speak up
  • Felt excluded because of your background, race, religion, etc.

If your answers to these questions are YES, then you are not in a psychologically safe work environment.

When you are psychologically not safe, you become less productive, lack energy and drive to work, lacks creativity, and see a fall in confidence level. Not only on the professional front, but on the personal front, your happiness and well-being quotient goes down, accumulate stress, and start doubting your abilities. On the other hand, you looking forward to going to work, getting excited about the team meetings, and looking forward to connecting with your colleagues at the workplace, or loosing track of time while at office means you feel psychologically safe at your workplace.


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