25 November 2019

Psychological safety: what does it mean and why is it so important in today’s workplace?

The term ‘psychological safety’ is a bit like saying ‘good quality conversation’. No one ever uses these terms in the real world but they’re increasingly becoming buzzwords in the corporate world.

Lucy from the Synergy team has been exploring the idea of psychological safety and why it’s important in today’s modern workplace…


When was the last time anyone described a dinner party as “a great night, my best friends were there, we chatted and laughed and put the world to rights, it was a place of real psychological safety”?

Of course, that doesn’t happen and if someone did say that you’d probably look at them in disbelief. But a dinner party with close friends where you’re totally relaxed and can talk openly, throwing in your opinions, sharing your hopes and dreams, is exactly that. A place of psychological safety where you can be yourself, say what you mean and contribute as you see fit, without fear of reproach.

Amy Edmondson coined the phrase psychological safety back in 1999, stating at the time “psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes”.


The fear of speaking up

Human nature motivates us to avoid situations that could result in a loss of face or reduced opportunities. No one wants to be laughed at or wants their peers to think they’re stupid. Because of this there can be a tendency to ‘cover’ – conform to dominant corporate norms – rather than speaking out or trying to do things differently. This can have a particularly adverse effect on the benefits of diversity. When people shy away from trying different things and diversity of thought, the advantages diversity can bring are compromised, with people choosing to conform instead.

What’s more, according to Include – Empower , employees engaging in ‘covering’ strategies to fit into dominant norms are 27% more likely to have considered leaving their organisation in the past 12 months. Quite simply, those covering aren’t bringing their best selves to work.

Of course, the complex environment of the workplace is a far cry from our Saturday night dinner party and our team members may well have higher status or power. So, how do we replicate that culture of psychological safety, a setting where we don’t fear being judged or penalised for voicing different opinions or making mistakes, at work?


Psychological safety in the workplace

With innovation recognised as a key strategic driver, creating a culture of psychological safety, a place where employees can bring themselves to work and be their best selves, is more important than ever. An environment where people can speak out, challenge and contribute without fear of retribution.

It’s also worth noting that although mission, vision and values can be set at board level, psychological safety really needs to be grown at team level. Team leaders should be held accountable for creating this culture within their teams, ensuring they are set up for success with the right training, communications and tools.

Here are our top 3 tips to integrate psychological safety at team level, providing a culture where innovation, fresh ideas, openness and transparency can thrive:


Encourage active listening

To build trust, you need to make sure that your people feel valued and heard, ensuring your managers are actively practicing this. We recommend:

  • Create forums to contribute ideas
  • Show understanding by repeating what was said
  • Encourage people to share more by asking questions
  • If certain individuals rarely speak during meetings, actively ask them for their opinion
  • MOST important: always feedback on what is said and act on great ideas!


Develop an open mindset

In order to break free of judgment and strengthen the relationship between team members, it’s important to have an open mindset. This is something that the team can work on together which will also help build trust. Try starting with a workshop to explore what this looks like. Then create forums to contribute ideas. Here at Synergy, we’ve all been trained on giving and receiving feedback and why it’s positive. We suggest:

  • Encourage teams to share feedback with one another
  • Help them learn how to respond to input from others
  • Rather than criticism, encourage teams and individuals to see feedback as a way to strengthen and build upon their ideas and processes.


Model curiousity

Encourage a culture where investigation and questioning are king. Train your teams to constantly question the way things are done and to make learning part of the everyday. You could try:

  • A creative thinking workshop to help the team tap into their creativity and start thinking differently
  • Inspire your team with a motivational speaker who achieved something remarkable by thinking outside the box
  • Support your team’s personal growth through 1-2-1 or group coaching


We help teams on their journey to psychological safety with support such as creative thinking workshops and manager comms toolkits, to group and 1-2-1 coaching. Email Lucy for a chat about your next steps.

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