Any strong relationship requires mutual trust, and when trust is lacking, the relationship is bound to suffer. When the relationship in question is among the members of a workplace team, the gradual erosion of trust can negatively impact a business for years to come. 

Companies have largely figured out the importance of building supportive teams, as anyone who’s ever participated in a corporate trust fall exercise can attest. But the kind of trust that can make or break a business — psychological safety – could never be learned in a trust fall. Psychological safety is about creating an environment that allows for mistakes made in good faith.

At Paragon Legal, we believe the mental health and well-being of employees is paramount to building a successful company. When employees experience psychological safety, they’re less stressed and more engaged. Here are some concepts we are keeping in mind.

What Is Psychological Safety?

Renowned Harvard researcher Amy Edmondson defines it as “a shared understanding by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”

At its core, the idea of psychological safety revolves around believing that you won’t face negative consequences to your status, career, or self-image if you make a mistake. In a work setting, it’s a shared belief among employees that it’s a safe environment for taking risks, knowing that your words and actions won’t be used against you if you don’t succeed (as long as your intentions are good).

Psychological safety is increasingly being recognized as a cornerstone of high-performing, successful teams and businesses. 

A key aspect of psychological safety is prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion, because this allows all employees to be themselves at work, freely speak their minds, and be creative without fear of repercussion.

The Benefits of Psychological Safety

The idea of psychological safety may seem fluffy or New Agey at first glance. In reality,  psychological safety offers a myriad of tangible benefits that help businesses succeed.

Companies that engender psychological safety among their employees see:

  • Bolder innovation: When employees feel empowered to offer fresh ideas and bring their unique perspectives to the workplace, their creativity is unleashed and innovation can only result
  • Better collaboration: Employees who feel free to offer feedback and edit each other’s ideas without fear of reprisal collaborate more openly and smoothly
  • Greater accountability: A psychologically safe environment allows for open and honest evaluation of each other’s strengths and areas of opportunity
  • More harmony: Employees who feel psychologically safe are more likely to have harmonious relationships with team members and are more likely to solve conflicts independently

Ultimately, you could have a team of the most talented individuals, but if everyone is a silo or scared about honestly sharing their ideas, you are missing out on huge potential and opportunities.

Psychological safety has also been shown to help businesses fully see the benefits of diversity. An environment where employees feel free to speak with candor without fear of negative consequences sets a framework where inclusion is not just a goal, but a reality.

According to the Harvard Business Review, a psychologically safe environment shakes team members out of their natural fight-or-flight response and into the “broaden-and-build” response, “which allows us to solve complex problems and foster cooperative relationships.”

How to Create a Psychologically Safe Work Environment

There’s no one right answer when it comes to fostering psychological safety in your workplace. It’s an ever-evolving process. 

There are certain things you can do, though, to set yourself on the right path:

  • Model the behavior and environment you want to see, including the notion that everyone is fallible. It starts with being vulnerable: admit your own mistakes and encourage others to do the same. 
  • Use these mistakes as an opportunity to learn, and coach team members to improve rather than dwelling on errors.     
  • When conflict does arise, use it as an educational opportunity and a chance to show what a safe environment looks like. Don’t allow people to shut others down, for example, and encourage open and honest communication.
  • Encourage both upward and downward feedback, model gracious receptiveness to feedback, and make a plan for putting that feedback into action. 
  • Maintain an ongoing assessment of your organization’s psychological safety (more on this below).

How to Identify Areas of Focus

To truly get a sense of psychological safety in your workplace, a thorough assessment must be undertaken, which could include anything from hiring a formal, outside consultant to giving employees an anonymous survey. 

But first, it’s important to conduct an honest self-assessment of the work environment to identify the most glaring obstacles to psychological safety. 

Asking the following questions will help to establish a general baseline:

  • Does the organization suffer from dysfunctional communication among team members or between teams? 
  • What avenues exist for team members to offer questions, ideas, and concerns with leaders and decision makers? Are they used widely and should more exist?
  • Do leaders in the company acknowledge their mistakes?
  • Does the workplace have a healthy and appropriate sense of humor?
  • Is there a perception that the organization struggles with harassment, overt bias, sexism, or racism? 
  • Is there a clear process for reporting inappropriate workplace behavior and are anti-retaliation policies in place?

These questions are not exhaustive, of course, but without asking them, you may already be creating a psychologically unsafe environment without even realizing it. 

The sooner you start addressing your psychological safety and creating a healthy work environment, the sooner you’ll start reaping the benefits, including more employee engagement, an increased ability to handle tough problems, and overall better employee performance.