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Psychological safety: the key to unlocking a high-performance workplace

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November 1, 2023

Businesses are increasingly recognising the part workplace culture plays in fostering sustainable, high-performing teams. Research consistently shows that promoting psychological safety – the shared belief that it’s OK to take risks, express ideas and admit mistakes without the fear of negative consequences – is crucial to creating the kind of culture that helps propel growth and improve resilience.

One 2021 report from Accenture quantified the operational benefits of businesses who prioritised high levels of psychological safety, citing a 27 percent reduction in staff turnover, a 76 percent increase in engagement and a 50 percent rise in productivity among employees.

Driving individual, team and company success

When a workplace feels psychologically safe, employees feel more engaged, motivated and valued, and businesses benefit from a more diverse range of perspectives leading to improved decision-making. As team members become familiar with sharing – and learning from – their missteps, it also forges a virtuous learning and development loop that feeds into existing L&D programmes.

This openness and transparency positively impact performance, innovation and creativity, making success a product of team effort, rather than the result of the individual contributions of its members.

Naturally, the converse is also true. In workplaces without this framework of psychological safety, people fail to thrive, with the result that innovation and performance also dip. The individual cost of this to health and career trajectory is matched by the price companies will pay in higher absenteeism and attrition rates, coupled with lower levels of engagement and .

Studies have shown that having a sustainable positive work environment is a key factor in employee retention, and psychological safety is key to this. And yet, speaking up can still feel fraught with anxiety. A 2019 US report by Gallup found that only three out of 10 employees strongly believed their opinions counted in the workplace, while a 2021 survey for International Women’s Day by gender equality advocate Catalyst showed that women were still having a hard time making their voices heard in meetings – one in five reported feeling overlooked or ignored in video calls.

At a time when leaders are already juggling the challenges of economic uncertainty and managing ever-more geographically distributed teams with constrained resources, how can they instil and embed a culture of psychological safety?

1.      Prioritise diversity

Recent academic research shows that in teams where high levels of psychological safety are experienced, diversity is positively associated with performance. Encouraging employees – including those from marginalised groups – to bring their authentic selves to work will help foster the high-functioning teams that are most likely to improve productivity and increase innovation.

2.      Feel ok with failure

Success is often born out of failure. In psychologically safe environments, leaders expect to experience more errors, not fewer, as teams feel more confident about reporting their mistakes. Apportioning blame is counterproductive. Instead, teams should be encouraged to explore and experiment, to take risks and celebrate wins, while sharing and learning from each other’s failures.

3.      Model vulnerability

To promote a culture of risk-taking, leaders must model psychological safety by owning their mistakes. By demonstrating candour, vulnerability and humility, leaders can help others to feel valued, while creating an environment where everyone is empowered to speak up. Asking for honest feedback will also help colleagues feel they’re being heard.

4.      Manage conflict

It’s important to acknowledge that increased diversity of thought will create the potential for greater disagreement. The key is to enable a collaborative and positive resolution process that facilitates a growth mindset rather than pitting ‘winners’ against ‘losers’. With the right approach – one of innovation and creativity – finding effective solutions soon becomes a team strength, not an individual pursuit.

5.      Challenge preconceptions

One of the misconceptions about creating a psychologically safe environment is that it’s about making the workplace more comfortable. In some ways, the reverse is true – expressing vulnerability can actually feel like a riskier, more challenging position for most of us. The key is to enable people to take these risks within a safe and supportive context.

Empowering your team

Much of the spadework that underpins a psychologically safe workplace is rooted in good management practices — like expressing a clear vision, setting fair expectations, encouraging honest communication and showing appreciation for a job well done.

By establishing a climate of psychological safety in the workplace, businesses have the rare opportunity to re-examine how success is reported and evaluated, opening up fresh possibilities to scale innovation for a more sustainable future.

It’s an approach that benefits every stakeholder, providing more fertile prospects for personal and professional growth, while enhancing the company brand, boosting performance and contributing to the attraction, engagement and retention of the best talent. Success requires trust from both sides: the trust of teams in their management to make good on their no-blame promises and the trust of leaders in their employees to commit to a shared vision.

Against a backdrop of increasing uncertainty, psychological safety may well become the single most important factor for companies looking to ensure prosperity over the long term.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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