What is Psychological Safety? (FAQ with Management Experts)

We asked management experts all about creating psychological safety in the workplace in a #ManagerChats, here's what they had to say!

A study conducted by Google’s People Operations team set out to answer this question: What makes a team effective? After two years of research with 200+ interviews amongst Google team members, the study revealed that the highest-performing teams have one thing in common: psychological safety (the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake). 

Follow along as we recap our expert #ManagerChats panelist’s answers to common questions about psychological safety!

What is Psychological Safety?

Ensuring psychological safety is important if you want a healthy and safe environment. To expect your employees to be vulnerable and share their ideas (especially conflicting ones), you must provide this environment. 

According to Alice Ko, Gallup Certified Strengths Coach & Startup Coach, “psychological safety is feeling safe enough to…

  • Be authentically YOU
  • Share honest ideas, no matter how bizarre
  • Speak your mind
  • Tell your manager & CEO what you REALLY think
  • Not censor oneself (with respect for others in mind of course)”

“For me, psychological safety is a capacity to feel safe to express your boundaries, trust others to recognize your legitimate concerns, speak up about your fears, issues and what needs to change – all without the risk of being shamed, undermined, or penalized.”

Dr. Soracha Cashman, Cognitive Neuropsychologist & Coach

How to measure psychological safety

Now that we know what psychological safety is, how do we measure it? All of our expert panelists have shared that the best way to measure psychological safety is to ask questions!

Asking team members questions through regular check-in surveys will anonymously get your team members’ opinions on whether they feel that they are in a psychologically safe environment or not. 

Richard McLean, Senior Director at Elsevier Connect, suggests asking your team members a series of 7 questions and rating them from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree” to measure psychological safety:

  1. If I make a mistake in this team, it is held against me.
  2. Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
  3. People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.
  4. It is safe to take a risk in this team.
  5. It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
  6. No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
  7. Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.

7 Tips to promote a psychologically safe environment

1 Promote an empowering culture

Promoting an empowering culture will encourage team members to speak up and be vulnerable. 

According to Alice Ko, following these tips will promote an empowering culture:

  • Be transparent
  • Follow through on your actions
  • Own up to your mistakes
  • Accept diverse opinions and strengths
  • Reward bravery

“Design employment around individuals, not institutions. When you practice empathy, and design employment around an individual’s skills, desires, passions you will not only create a path for a happier employee, you are also helping them contribute more.”

Greg Gunn, Founder and CEO of Commit

2 Learn to handle (and encourage) opposing views

Learning how to handle opposing views is an important step in fostering psychological safety. Not every team member is likely to see eye-to-eye. And these differences are what create conversation. However, guiding the conversation positively is very important to ensure that each person, no matter their viewpoint, feels safe sharing their ideas. 

Furthermore, having a variety of viewpoints is what makes a team strong. We’ve all been in a similar situation; you come up with an idea and are so excited to share it that you don’t look at the idea from all different angles. This blind spot is very common and can be avoided by encouraging different viewpoints to get a variety of perspectives. 

“Team meeting conflict will happen. Psychological safety doesn’t mean no conflict, it means conflict is safely managed. Create an environment that removes blame, criticism & competition from WITHIN the team, and embraces curiosity, collaboration & mutuality.”

Dr. Soracha Cashman

3 Ask for criticism

In addition to learning how to handle opposing viewpoints, it is also important to learn how to ask for criticism. Asking for criticism will encourage team members to share their opposing views on an idea and ensure them that this is a safe place to speak up. 

Mallam Tamon added to the conversation and said that to earn trust, you must ask for criticism; “Specifically ask, ‘Now I only want to hear criticism of this idea’. Listen, say ‘Thank You’, and only ask clarifying questions”. 

Pro tip

Use a meeting management tool like Fellow to have a collaborative agenda so everyone can voice their questions, opinions, and document views.

4 Engage human to human (not boss to employee)

When somebody is authoritatively talking to you, it can make you feel uncomfortable. Therefore, engaging with your employees as a human and not as their superior will show them that you respect them and that everyone’s opinion is equal.

According to Dr. Soracha Cashman, trust is everything in psychological safety, and by engaging human to human rather than boss to employee, you can foster trust in your relationship. 

5 Encourage risk-taking and failure

For managers to expect their employees to take risks, they must provide a psychologically safe environment. Taking risks, especially in a group setting, makes us vulnerable. Therefore, it is important to know how to create an environment where employees feel safe to be vulnerable and try new things around their co-workers. 

It can be scary speaking up because of the risk of failing. But failure only makes you stronger and being in a supportive environment will encourage employees to not fear failing.

According to Amanda Greenberg, Co-Founder and CEO of Balloon, failure does not exist. She views the act of failing as an opportunity to learn something and grow. 

6 Provide constructive feedback 

There can be a fine line between constructive feedback and negative criticism. Therefore, to provide a psychologically safe environment, you must learn how to give feedback constructively. 

Following Dr. Soracha Cashman’s feedback checklist, you can ensure your feedback is constructive and not a criticism:

  • Feedback should outline the issue and show how to fix it
  • Feedback should be said in a positive way
  • Feedback should come from a caring place
  • Feedback should be timed appropriately
  • Feedback should be private (not for the rest of the team to see)
  • Feedback should come from the correct person (not your co-worker, but your boss)

“Poorly delivered feedback may simply describe what is wrong, without a suggestion of how any improvements could be made. Without providing actions or changes, feedback is simply badly delivered criticism.”

Tom Geraghty

7 Speak last

Mallam Tamon shares that by speaking last, employees will not feel like they need to align with their bosses. So, by letting your employees speak first, you are letting them share their thoughts and ideas without trying to agree with their superiors. This will facilitate a psychologically safe environment by making sure that your employees know that their opinions matter. 

Parting advice

Fostering a psychologically safe workplace is extremely important. As a manager, it is your responsibility to ensure that your employees feel safe to express their thoughts and ideas. By promoting an empowering culture, encouraging opposing views, asking for criticisms, engaging human to human, encouraging risk-taking and failure, providing constructive feedback, and speaking last, you can foster psychological safety in your workplace.

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About the author

Hannah Sheehan

Hannah Sheehan is a Content Marketer at Fellow.app, as well as a Communication and Media Studies student at Carleton University. Past experience includes writing for The Charlatan Newspaper and Sens Nation Podcast. Her areas of interest are personal development and creative writing. In her free time, she is usually watching her favourite tv show, Friends!

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