4 practices to foster psychological safety

Sadly, the news is filled with tragic and unsettling stories about the state of our schools’ and workplaces’ physical safety. The issue is complex, multifaceted, and will likely be debated for some time. Many managers and leaders are feeling immobilized, unable to take meaningful action.

There is, however, one dimension of safety over which leaders have tremendous influence: psychological safety. Researchers Amy Edmondson and Jeff Polzer describe psychological safety as a “climate where people recognize their ability and responsibility to overcome fear and reluctance to speak up with potentially controversial ideas or questions.”

Psychological safety is based in large part upon group norms and the expectations that those norms establish. It boils down to a belief on the part of team members that taking interpersonal risks (like speaking up, offering a dissenting point of view, or admitting mistakes) will not negatively affect them, their relationships with others, the level of acceptance and respect they enjoy or their status or image within the team.

While this description certainly paints a picture of a pleasant, functional workplace, psychological safety is not a "nice to have" icing. It’s the cake. Because to survive today, organizations demand learning to occur broadly, deeply and quickly. They demand agility. And they demand pervasive and persistent innovation, whether in products, services, processes, partnerships and more. All of these can be delivered in workplaces with greater levels of psychological safety.

While psychological safety is ultimately a personal choice, leaders are in a powerful position to work with others to foster an environment that leads individuals and teams to make that choice.

Leaders can support greater psychological safety by putting these SAFE practices in place.

Set an example

Just as a picture is worth 1,000 words, a leader’s behavior speaks volumes. When leaders are authentic, demonstrate vulnerability, admit to not knowing and come clean that they, too, make mistakes, this sends a powerful message to others. When they see that there are no negative ramifications and maybe even positive effects, the door is open to taking the risk of putting themselves out there, too.

Amplify inclusion

Inclusion is at the core of psychological safety, and leaders can amplify it in several different ways. First, by setting the expectation that respect is non-negotiable. This means modeling it yourself and holding others accountable to do the same. It means checking in regularly to ensure that practices, and even humor, don’t have unintended respect-undermining consequences.

Leaders can also amplify inclusion by asking for input, ideas and issues -- and doing so routinely so that it becomes the rule rather than the exception. The more opportunities others have to contribute their thoughts, the more opportunities they have to learn that it’s safe -- and maybe even fun and productive. This builds their confidence and the confidence of others, contributing to a virtuous upward cycle of involvement and inclusions.

Foster healthy conflict and debate

The risks that undermine psychological safety often center on the reactions others might have to one’s ideas -- and the conflict that might ensue. As a result, leaders must work hard to encourage open and honest communication. They have to allow and hold the space for differences of opinion (something that’s not easy in today’s sometimes divisive climate). Leaders must help others learn how to disagree without being disagreeable -- to debate ideas rather than making issues personal. When team members learn that it’s not only all right but actually productive to engage in healthy conflict, it creates a safer environment for processing differences without fear of repercussions.

Encourage experimentation

It’s only natural that people will be reluctant to take risks if they either don’t know the consequences -- or have seen negative consequences -- associated with failure. Experimentation must be encouraged. But people may remain skeptical until they truly believe that their leaders view failure as learning. This means elevating the role and value of curiosity and making sure that falling short is consistently an opportunity for dialogue, problem-solving and understanding, rather than punishment.

These SAFE practices promote the psychological safety that supports strong teams and business results. And, who knows? Perhaps safer psychological environments will lead to safer physical environments, as well.


Julie Winkle Giulioni is the author of “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want,” with Bev Kaye. Giulioni has spent the past 25 years improving performance through learning. She consults with organizations to develop and deploy innovative instructional designs and training worldwide. You can learn more about her consulting, speaking and blog at JulieWinkleGiulioni.com.

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