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Psychological Safety at Work

Why psychological safety at work matters even more on remote and hybrid teams.

Key points

  • Organizations that report high levels of psychological safety also report lower levels of burnout and higher rates of retention.
  • Psychological safety has been described as a “engine for performance” due to its ability to encourage candid feedback and risk taking.
  • Psychological safety helps everyone speak up, and as such, it is also a critical factor in promoting more equitable workplaces.

While most leaders feel relatively secure at work, this isn't necessarily true for all team members. For leaders who have rarely, if ever, felt vulnerable at work, understanding psychological safety can also be challenging. Unfortunately, since the pandemic, psychological safety in the workplace has become a growing concern. Nowhere is this more evident than on remote and hybrid teams.

As someone who was writing about work in a wired world long before most people ever experienced their first remote team, I have always been a huge proponent of virtual collaborations. I have also always cautioned that working online requires different skills and a heightened attentiveness to relationship building, trust-building, and psychological safety.

What is psychological safety?

The Center for Creative Leadership defines psychological safety as "the belief that you won't be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes." At work, psychological safety is an especially high-stakes issue—one that can and does have the capacity to determine whether a team and its individual members are successful.

Why does psychological safety matter on teams and across organizations?

Psychological safety in the workplace has a significant impact on everything from retention to productivity to innovation. Among other things, psychological safety is known to:

  • Reduce stress and mitigate burnout: Psychological safety at work has been found to reduce stress and play a key role in mitigating burnout. This is partly due to the fact that when employees feel safe at work, they are more likely to voice concerns early on and access support, hence preventing minor problems from becoming major ones.
  • Increase risk-taking: Research suggests that high psychological safety enables team members to take greater risks, leading to better results (e.g., in medicine, improved patient outcomes).
  • Serve as an engine for performance: Because psychological safety encourages risk-taking, which is connected to both creativity and innovation, some researchers characterize psychological safety as an "engine for performance."
  • Encourage candid feedback: We know that candid feedback is vital and that it can be difficult to share honest and actionable feedback in a low-trust environment. High levels of psychological safety help build workplaces where feedback can be easily shared on an ongoing basis, driving better outcomes.
  • Help team members with lower confidence speak up: One of the most important impacts of psychological safety is its ability to help team members with lower confidence speak up.
  • Promote equitable workplaces where everyone is valued: Minorities often feel unable to speak up at work, especially about experiences of bias (e.g., one recent study found that 38% of black professionals feel that it is never acceptable at their companies to speak out about their experiences of bias). In this respect, psychological safety, which helps people feel empowered to speak up and out, also plays a vital role in building more equitable workplaces. This is precisely the argument made in this 2015 study by Amy Edmonston and Katheryn Roloff.
  • Increase retention: For all the above reasons, high levels of psychological safety are also strongly correlated with increased retention. In the current job market, where finding and retaining talent is a growing challenge, it follows that investing in psychological safety offers a clear return for teams and organizations.

How can leaders foster psychological safety, especially on remote and hybrid teams?

When teams work remotely some or all of the time, it is easier for communication to break down and for trust to erode. As a result, on remote and hybrid teams, it is even more important to invest time and energy in fostering psychological safety. It all starts with pulling the right levers:

  • Do a trust audit: Start by looking in the mirror. Most breaches of trust are unintentional micro breaches, but over time, these micro breaches can result in a low-trust environment. Be self-reflexive about when and where you're breaching trust.
  • Invest more time onboarding new team members: Think about onboarding as a means to introduce new members to processes, work expectations, and the team (i.e., how you operate, what matters, and who you are).
  • Discover new ways to build relationships beyond meetings: If familiarity breeds likeness, share more about yourself and take time to discover what you share in common with others. Start small and safe.
  • Increase transparency and communication: Idle office talk can be damaging, but sometimes it does play a role in helping people learn about current developments (e.g., an exciting new project in the works). In the absence of casual conversations (e.g., the type of conversation you may have once had in the elevator or at the coffee machine), employees may feel more in the dark than ever before. Increase transparency and communication, but remember that some people may feel more empowered to share than others. Respect differences.
  • Reconnect in person when possible: Create a list of who you've connected with and when. As a leader, you may want to schedule a formal offsite or, if possible, an optional day of outdoor recreation or volunteer work. For team members who were onboarded online, just a few hours of connecting with colleagues in person can make a world of difference.

References

Grailey KE, Murray E, Reader T, Brett SJ. The presence and potential impact of psychological safety in the healthcare setting: an evidence synthesis. BMC Health Serv Res. 2021 Aug 5;21(1):773. doi: 10.1186/s12913-021-06740-6. PMID: 34353319; PMCID: PMC8344175.

Johnson, CE, Keating, JL, and Molloy, EK. Psychological safety in feedback: What does it look like and how can educators work with learners to foster it? Medical Education. 2020 May 17; 54 (6): 559-570. https://doi.org/10.1111/medu.14154

Kim, S., Lee, H., & Connerton, T. P. (2020). How Psychological Safety Affects Team Performance: Mediating Role of Efficacy and Learning Behavior. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 1581. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01581

Klinefelter Z, Sinclair RR, Britt TW, Sawhney G, Black KJ, Munc A. Psychosocial safety climate and stigma: Reporting stress-related concerns at work. Stress Health. 2021 Aug;37(3):488-503. doi: 10.1002/smi.3010. Epub 2020 Dec 14. PMID: 33277820.

O'Donovan R, McAuliffe E. Exploring psychological safety in healthcare teams to inform the development of interventions: combining observational, survey and interview data. BMC Health Serv Res. 2020 Aug 31;20(1):810. doi: 10.1186/s12913-020-05646-z. PMID: 32867762; PMCID: PMC7456753.

Siemsen, Enno, et al. "The Influence of Psychological Safety and Confidence in Knowledge on Employee Knowledge Sharing." Manufacturing & Service Operations Management 11.3 (2009): 429-47. ProQuest. 7 Nov. 2021 .

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