Psychological Safety : Image of woman speaking on panel

Why psychological safety is as important as physical safety

So, let’s get connected to the reality of psychological safety. Why is it important? And why does it pay to prioritise psychological safety at work?

Why psychological safety is as important as physical safety

What does psychological safety really mean?

It is positive and even liberating to be able to express our authentic selves openly and to truly feel heard. That’s how we experience “psychological safety”. 

At work, psychological safety may look like being tentative at first, then being more yourself; being accepted, feeling respected, feeling able to say what is important to you, no matter how odd you think it may be.

So, let’s get connected to the reality of psychological safety. Why is it important? And why does it pay to prioritise psychological safety at work?

In a 2021 US study, psychological safety was linked to several metrics important for businesses. Not only was employee turnover reduced by a third but safety incidents were also reduced by 40% and productivity increased by 12%.

In the same 2021 US study, not only did working parents experience lower levels of psychological safety, both women and non-white employees did too.

According to the 2017 Gallup report, ‘The State of the American Workplace’, panel data was collected from almost 200,000 employees and it concluded that millions of people enjoy significantly better wellbeing and effectiveness at work by working in a place of high psychological safety – a staggering 74% in fact.

In short, we want to create workplaces where people feel comfortable to be themselves. A place where they feel safe to ask questions, share ideas, give and receive feedback and take risks to challenge the status quo.

Why is psychological safety so important today?

There are two reasons why this is so important today. Respect and openness. 

In the world today, there is a heightened level of awareness and sensitivity around what is appropriate in terms of treating our fellow humans with respect at work and in our social lives. This has never been under more scrutiny and if not properly considered, can lead to discrimination and ultimately feelings of great pain. This is why creating an environment of respect is so important.  

The second reason is that expertise can come from anyone. It’s no longer held at the top of the organisational hierarchy. In fact, those closer to customers and clients are acknowledged to have the greatest insights, which are invaluable to remaining a competitive business. All voices need to be heard internally in order for businesses to remain appropriate and dynamic in the ever-increasing pace of business. Which is why it is so important that businesses foster and nurture openness to enable people to come forward and share any and all insights without fear. 

And the payoff?

There are seven tangible benefits of respectful and open cultures, which all impact on your bottom line and reputation as an employer:

  1. It enhances employee engagement
  2. It fosters an inclusive workplace culture
  3. It boosts team performance
  4. It inspires creativity and ideas
  5. It facilitates learning
  6. It improves employee wellbeing
  7. It reduces employee turnover

Why an absence of psychological safety is not an option

Do you remember what happened when Boeing developed their 737 Max aircraft?

Hundreds of lives were lost when two Boeing 737 Max aircraft crashed in late 2018 and 2019. Dr Amy Edmondson, Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, as well as the author of The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace,’ highlighted the organisational culture at Boeing as a “…textbook case of how the absence of psychological safety… can lead to disastrous results.”

As part of the investigation, Boeing employees were found to have spoken with one another with messages such as, ‘Would you put your family on a 737 Max? I wouldn’t.’ 

Amongst themselves, they criticized Boeing leadership’s focus on aggressive production schedules and cost-cutting measures but these employees didn’t want to be seen as raising safety concerns or ‘rocking the boat’ out of fear they would be the first to go if layoffs came.

Still not convinced?

Take a look at Google’s Project Aristotle:

Google’s People Operations (HR department) set out to discover what made some of their teams more effective than others. They called the project, ‘Project Aristotle’, a tribute to Aristotle’s quote, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”.

They observed and interviewed 180 teams over several years and looked at numerous factors, including team members’ personalities, education and skills, team purpose, reliability of co-workers and clarity of goals but by a wide margin, the biggest differentiator was psychological safety. 

Interestingly, teams with high psychological safety still made mistakes, but they turned out to be the most productive units. 

Deeper research revealed that they didn’t make any fewer mistakes, they just reported and talked about them more easily and productively and this was the fuel for continuous improvement.

It’s not just about being nice

For total clarity, a psychologically safe environment is NOT one where everyone is unconditionally nice to each other. That again would suggest an environment where there is fear of offence. In a psychologically safe space, feedback is always given and received with the positive intent of learning, growth an improvement for everyone. And there are levels to psychological safety:

  1. Level 1: Inclusion. If someone is fully accepted, quirky characteristics and all they will feel free to experience the second level of psychological safety.
  2. Level 2: Free to learn. At this next level, they feel happy to ask questions, ask for and give feedback. Again, if this is experienced, they’ll move on up.
  3. Level 3: Free to fail. At this third level, they will feel more comfortable trying things out without fear of making mistakes.
  4. Level 4: Free to challenge. Finally, at this highest level of psychological safety, they will be happy to be a challenger, taking on the status quo without fear of repercussions.

So how do you foster psychological safety at work?

There are some golden rules:

  1. Include: promote respect and inclusivity for individuals and a collective purpose as a team
  2. Connect: Make time to check-in, listen and actively solicit feedback with integrity and curiosity
  3. Appreciate: Actively encourage contributions and positively acknowledge all strengths, skills, effort and ideas
  4. Grow: Embrace all learnings as opportunities to develop from challenge and failure

Psychological safety takes a concerted effort that needs to be consciously role modelled by all leaders and people of influence. Listen, learn, adapt – embrace the mistakes and move forward. The results are worth the effort.  

For more information on how we can support on your psychological safety journey click here.