May 4, 2022

3 Tips to Cultivate Psychological Safety in the Workplace

4 min read
By The Smarty Train
Just three in ten people believe that their opinions count at work, and nearly one in five report feeling overlooked or ignored during video meetings.


Psychological safety has gained increased traction in recent years. It is now a well-established arrow in the quiver of people leaders looking to foster creativity amongst their teams and build a culture of innovation. It’s become central to conversations around fostering an inclusive working culture, by being key to building belonging. It may even be a contributing factor for increased engagement and retention, with recent surveys citing the top factors for employees quitting being that they didn’t feel valued by their organisations (54%) or their managers (52%).

As a primer, Harvard’s Dr. Amy Edmondson coined the term “psychological safety” in a journal exploring its relationship to team learning and performance. She defined it as “a climate in which people are comfortable being (and expressing) themselves.”

The paper goes on to explore how being able to be vulnerable and openly discuss opposing views around hard-hitting topics is crucial for constructive ideating and dialogue amongst teams, and allows them to bring their authentic selves (and ideas) to work. As Dr. Edmondson writes, “not every idea is good, and yes there are stupid questions, and yes dissent can slow things down, but talking through these things is an essential part of the creative process.”

In addition to its benefits for creative processes, research has found that 89% of employees believe psychological safety at work is essential to team and individual performance, and that it’s the responsibility of business leaders to create a safe and respectful workplace.

Despite the importance of facilitating a psychologically safe environment to ensure a culture of innovation and inclusivity, only 47% of employees describe their workplaces as psychologically safe. Here are three spaces where people leaders can focus their efforts to better facilitate a psychologically safe workplace and help fuel productivity, creativity and overall performance:

3 Spaces to Build Psychological Safety:


1) Spaces for talking:

Being able to push back, disagree, and recommend opposing viewpoints comfortably is a key indicator of a psychologically safe space. How can your organisation build the right spaces for your people to disagree with one another?

  • Reciprocal Leaders: Psychological safety is about more than Line Manager check-ins to discuss pain points or difficulties. It’s a two-way street that requires candour, transparency, and open discussion from both parties. Are your leaders demonstrating openness and empathy as well as demanding it?
  • Growth Mindset: Feedback is a magic wand. It’s the one thing that can both boost performance and course-correct unhelpful behaviour. Feedback should be something your people crave. Does your organisation encourage a growth mindset? Is there an open feedback culture?
  • Open Dialogue: Have you considered introverts and extroverts in your meeting agenda? Try to adopt the famous “Yes, and…” technique to encourage open dialogue amongst your people and keep the idea ball rolling.


2) Spaces for wellbeing:

Psychological Safety can play an important role in boosting wellbeing at work: by creating an environment in which people needs are heard and met, your people will be more comfortable suggesting changes that could benefit their wellbeing at work, and, by extension, their productivity. How can your organisation demonstrate that better employee wellbeing is a priority?

  • Dedicated Pauses: Consider a sacred 30 minutes or hour where no meetings are allowed to be booked. People can use this time to step away from desks and take a break, or be undisturbed for a period of time whilst they are ‘heads-down’ in some work. We instituted a “Golden Hour” at The Smarty Train, where this is put into practice, and it’s been especially valuable during hybrid working.
  • Line Manager Check-ins: Line managers should be equipped with the right training and resources to be able to facilitate wellbeing conversations with line reports, and know where and when to escalate appropriately.
  • Wellbeing = Performance: Wellbeing directly impacts performance, and there is increasing need for wellbeing to be a strategic priority in organisations. Because of this, try to gently incorporate wellbeing in performance review cycles and discussions.


3) Spaces for human connection:

Since the transition to hybrid, our workplace communities have taken a hit: 31% of people feel less connected to their leaders, while 37% feel less connected to their teammates. Yet we know community-building at work matters: people who feel a sense of belonging at work are at least 5 times more likely to be engaged and feel comfortable to bring their authentic selves to work. How can you build a robust community among your people, for face-to-face, virtual and hybrid?

  • Inspire the collective: If you want your people to open up, you’ll have to lead the way. Show that you are open-minded, compassionate, and transparent. If you’re not candid with your people, don’t expect them to be candid with you, but remember: it will take time to build that trust. The most powerful tool for inspiration in your belt? Storytelling. Master it.
  • Design for inclusivity: It’s more important than ever to make all team members feel included. Designing inclusively allows all team members to flourish, regardless of gender, colour, race, background, political preferences, or any other factor. When designing a programme, campaign, experience, or any type of touchpoint, seek the input and perspectives of the outliers in your audience population. The people who normally aren’t considered. Design for them, and you’re more likely to make your design relevant and accessible for everyone.
  • Invest in beginnings: Your induction for new joiners will set the tone for everything to come, anchoring future expectations. Even if Psychological Safety is already ingrained in your company culture, ensure your new joiners know from the first moment that their opinion matters, and that yours is an environment where people can say how they are feeling. This likely isn’t the case in the organisations they have come from.


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