Throughout evolution, the stressors that had triggering effects on our “Fight, Flight or Freeze” response have changed. Our ancestors used to hide from avalanches, wild animals. Their main goal was to survive physical threats and stressors in the wild.

In our modern world, physical threat is still present, but to a much lesser degree, whereas symbolic threat has exponentially increased, with the latter referring to our opinions, attitudes, beliefs and values that can be intentionally or unintentionally attacked and consequently cause us harm.

Despite these changes in the source of threat, the main hormone that is implicated in our stress response has remained unchanged. Long exposures to cortisol causes imbalances in the body, which in turn can highly affect performance and lead to burnouts. This emphasises the importance of psychological safety all the more, both at an individual level and within teams.

Reference: Mural by Ioana Urma

What is Psychological Safety?

Amy Edmondson coined the term “Psychological Safety” and defined it as: “ The belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.” 

It is a state where our opinions, attitudes, beliefs and values are protected regardless of how different they may be, especially when compared to others.

What is Psychological Safety at work?

Nowadays, we live in times of high uncertainty and change, with this phenomenon being particularly experienced by those at work. Repeated lockdowns, coupled with disruptions in our job routines, have turned the work lives of many upside down, with no end in sight. This has been particularly disruptive for teams, and has created an even bigger need for psychological safety to be prominent in the workplace. This need becomes even more magnified once we become aware of the extent to which teams are interconnected and interdependent. The interdependence of a team directly contributes to its ability to meet its needs, and complete its objectives. Team members that are supportive and accepting of one another understand that the success of one leads to the team’s collective success and wellbeing.

A workplace that is psychologically safe is one that is accepting of all of its employees, regardless of their status or personal characteristics. When this is the case, we aren’t worried about speaking up about any work related issue, be it concerning us or anyone else. More importantly, being part of a psychologically safe workplace means that we aren’t afraid of being punished, humiliated, or embarrassed for being ourselves. When this is the case, productivity and team morale has been shown to greatly increase, with turnover rates decreasing as well.

How can a leader promote Psychological Safety in the work environment?

A commonly held belief among leaders is that psychological safety is automatically present among their employees, which might not necessarily be the case. In order to foster a more psychologically mindful workplace, these leaders need to be active agents of the change that they are promoting. It’s only natural for employees to hesitate to speak up, or to put themselves out there at work, out of fear of consequences. This is why leaders can begin by fostering a culture of curiosity, where any mistake, question or concern is not dismissed, but is in fact encouraged. We can do so by reframing the work as a learning problem, rather than an execution problem. In other words, when we view the work that we’re doing under the lens of a learning opportunity, rather than something that must be executed, we are much more likely to ask questions and be curious about it.. It ‘s also important to be aware that as much as leaders would want to be able to resolve these issues that their employees might raise, this might not always be the case, especially when the process of fostering a psychologically safe work environment is still in its  early infancy. Team members need to be especially aware of this, and not feel discouraged if certain problems or issues are not immediately resolved. It’s the leader’s duty to emphasize this, both verbally, and with their actions. This could come in the form of publicly acknowledging efforts of an employee who took a risk, even if it did not pay off.

Although psychological safety is of paramount importance in the workplace, it needs to be coupled with accountability in order to maximize team productivity. A team that feels psychologically safe, but lacks accountability, risks having its members feeling too lax, which can result in poor performance and lack of motivation. Ideally, teams should have high levels of accountability and psychological safety, which provides them with the right tools in order to excel at work, while not being afraid of failure.

How can an employee contribute to a psychologically safe workplace?

While it is true that leaders should play a big role in fostering psychological safety, the onus still remains on employees to do their part as well. Employees can help by being encouraging of their fellow team members when they decide to speak up about any work related issue, and supportive. Psychological safety doesn’t mean that everyone is nice all the time, but rather, that conflicts are not avoided, especially when they can be used as an opportunity to bridge whatever gap that may exist between employees, and benefit the team as a whole. A study by Amy Edmondson has shown that the highest performing teams are the ones that make the most mistakes, which might sound paradoxical at first, but not when we take into consideration the fact that it’s simply much more likely that these mistakes are often more openly acknowledged and talked about in psychologically safe teams.

There has never been a greater need for psychological safety than today. In a poll conducted by Dr. Meisha-Ann Martin, she found that only 26% of workers reported feeling psychologically safe during the pandemic, and that they also reported higher levels of burnout, stress, and loneliness. Women in particular seem to be the most impacted, with this potentially being a barrier towards promoting a more gender inclusive workplace. In today’s fast paced and uncertain world, these numbers only reveal a glimpse of the underlying issue of the lack of psychological safety in the workplace, and the destructive effects that it can have on individuals, teams, and organizations.

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