Seven Strategies for Creating an Environment of Psychological Safety

There’s been a flood of articles lately about psychological safety—and for good reason. It is essential if people are to be engaged and productive. It is the foundation for a dynamic, vibrant workplace. And it is woefully missing at most companies.

Psychological safety happens in a workplace when people feel free to speak their mind, take a risk, or admit to mistakes without fear of being punished. The pandemic has made it a hot topic. Many people have felt psychologically battered and bruised over the last couple of years. They’re raw and they need a work environment where they feel safe.

The Great Trust Experiment

The pandemic has been a great trust experiment. Literally overnight, organizations were forced to extend massive amounts of trust to their people by letting them work from home.

We all know what happened. By and large, remote work has been a great success. Many employees have proven more productive than they had been in the workplace. This has shined a spotlight on how relatively unproductive things had been prior to the March 2020 shutdown.

Post-Pandemic Psychological Safety

Sometimes you don’t realize you’re missing something until right after you get a taste of it. In the last two years, many people have developed a taste for freedom and autonomy. Companies trusted them to work from home—without supervision—and to bring their brains to work. Now that offices are slowly reopening, these people, understandably, don’t want to return. They don’t want to go back to the way things were.

What’s the lesson here? People experienced a world where the boss was no longer a few steps down the hall, checking in to make sure they’re doing their work—and they liked it. The Great Trust Experiment showed people the importance of psychological safety.

The thought of returning to a psychologically unsafe environment has many people on edge. Considering that about three out of four people don’t feel psychologically safe at work, every leader should be asking “How do I create a psychologically safe environment?”

Seven Keys to a Psychologically Safe Workplace

Ken Blanchard and I share ways to create a psychologically safe environment in our new book, Simple Truths of Leadership: 52 Ways to Be a Servant Leader and Build Trust.  Here are a few choice strategies you can use to create the culture you want in your workplace.

Eliminate fear: Fear is the enemy of trust. Lack of trust destroys psychological safety. People flourish in a safe and trusting environment.

People must know there won’t be repercussions if they share ideas or their perceptions of the truth or if they make a mistake. Your job as a leader is to live this truth.

Praise often: Unfortunately, we are hardwired to focus on the negative—so much so that it takes five praisings to counteract one criticism. For example, our natural inclination is to interpret emails in the worst possible light. The takeaway for leaders is to praise your people often and keep your communications positive.

Share yourself: People tend to form one-dimensional caricatures of their leaders from short interactions. “So-and-so was short with me, which means they are uncaring in every situation.” You can overcome this mental kink by helping your people understand that you are a multifaceted person, just like they are.

I’m not suggesting you share deeply personal information. It is, however, completely appropriate to talk about your values, what’s important to you, what motivates you, etc. Doing this builds trust with your people, which is essential for psychological safety.

Create clear boundaries: Everyone in the workplace must know what is and isn’t acceptable. Everyone must agree to abide by the same rules. No one should get a free pass because of position or seniority. Everyone must treat each other with respect and decency.

Keep a level playing field: People sometimes think a leader will rush to their defence in a moment of conflict. But if that happens, all the other team members will be fearful of making a mistake or stepping out of line. In a psychologically safe workplace, there are no favourites and there are no scapegoats.

Allow curiosity: At your workplace, do people feel secure enough to try new things, to explore unusual ideas, to express alternate views? Or do they hold back, afraid of possible negative consequences? When people feel fearful, their engagement plummets. But when you permit them to be curious, you’re providing an open, safe space for them to experiment without fear of repercussion. When they make a mistake, reframe it as a learning opportunity.

Think about this from an employee’s perspective. Instead of bracing yourself for a tongue-lashing, you receive honest, encouraging feedback. How would that make you feel about your workplace?

Be clear about your expectations: Research shows that many people don’t know what’s expected of them. This is a recipe for mistakes and misunderstandings, which undermine psychological safety. You can circumvent all this with a simple activity: Have your people write down what they think their responsibilities are and you do the same. Then compare. Chances are you’ll be quite surprised by the differences between the two lists.

You can also use this tactic for aligning your people’s priorities with yours: Have them write down what they consider their most important tasks, and you do the same. Then compare notes and discuss. A little exercise like this can clear up lots of confusion.

There’s no magic bullet for creating an environment of psychological safety. It takes lots of intentional effort on the part of leaders and it takes time to build the bonds of trust. But the rewards are great.

Unleash the potential of your people. Help them feel comfortable returning to work. Turn the Great Resignation into the Great Renewal!