Mar 2021 – How do you know that your organisation is psychologically safe?

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How do you know that your organisation is psychologically safe?

It’s a critical question.

Psychological safety is one of the most important predictors of workplace success. But it’s also one of the least understood.

“It’s a really important part of a culture which allows people to deal directly with interpersonal issues and decision-making issues in the workplace,” says Brock Bastian, a professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne who specialises in workplace mental health.

“If you can do it directly, then you can correct the direction of what is happening and quickly nip it in the bud and get things back on track.”

Bastian says the concept of psychological safety has emerged from studies into why some organisations are better at innovation than others.

“You want people to feel free to throw things out there without anybody pulling the carpet from underneath and making them feel silly,” he says.

“The aeroplane was not designed on the first attempt. Innovation comes from the ability to throw out ideas, to engage in things that might fail … you really need people to have this open and free way of communicating where they don’t feel at risk, interpersonally from other people.”

But a psychologically safe workplace has benefits beyond innovation, also allowing people to speak up against workplace issues such as bullying, discrimination, performance and safety.

This is a key driver of the classic measures of corporate success like employee engagement, a sense of ownership, and a sense of agency.

“It is quite an essential feature of a positive and robust culture,” he says.

Importantly, psychological safety also has a bottom-line impact.

Great Place to Work®’s surveys over 30 years show that of all metrics measured, psychological safety is the most important predictor of profitability.

Bastian cautions that providing a psychologically safe workplace does not mean staff are immune from criticism, performance standards or confronting conversations.

“It’s distinct from the idea that people need to be protected and the idea of safe spaces,” he says.

“Psychological safety is that quality of culture where people feel safe to take personal risks and that means having fairly robust and direct interactions, sometimes raising difficult or uncomfortable issues.”

So, what are the signs to look for? How do you know if your organisation is providing a psychologically safe environment and reaping the resulting benefits?

Professor Dame Carol Black, a leading expert and UK government adviser on the relationship between work and health, urges businesses to start collecting data on their employees’ wellbeing.

“Almost all employers want to do something positive. They want to provide some interventions,” she says, in a Great Place to Work® UK panel on mental health.

“I try to get them – before they plunge in at the deep end – to understand it in greater depth. Data is power.”

Bastian offers some checkpoints – are leaders are comfortable expressing vulnerability? Do they admit mistakes?

“A little bit of humility and a little bit of vulnerability in leadership is a very powerful thing,” he says.

Cisco, the Great Place to Work-Certified™ technology multinational, says it holds quarterly engagement surveys triggered by leaders to measure how safe their people feel and whether they trust their team and leaders.

Beyond leadership, look out for signs that people are speaking up and raising issues with their peers and – more importantly – with management.

“The really key feature is that people feel safe to stick their neck out, and that any feathers that get ruffled will be dealt with in a way which is respectful, fair and ethical,” says Bastian.