August Behavioral Health Column

VPPPA has partnered with the experts at MindWise Innovations to present a monthly article addressing issues and questions that members might be hesitant to ask about. These columns will address your concerns about mental health, substance abuse, brain injuries, family issues, and more.

By: Lisa Desai, Chief Behavioral Health Officer, MindWise Innovations​​

The Importance of Fostering Psychological Safety in the Workplace

Have you ever had a great idea at work but didn’t feel comfortable sharing it? Most of us have been there – a better way for the company to operate pops into your head but you don’t pass this information forward. Maybe you fear repercussions from your boss if your suggestion doesn’t pan out. Perhaps you aren’t given a chance to speak or are discouraged from talking when the opportunity presented itself. You most likely believed you had more to lose from speaking up as opposed to remaining silent. If this sounds at all familiar, odds are your work environment isn’t psychologically safe, and both you and your employer are suffering as a result.  In construction or related industries, psychological safety can bolster physical safety – a priority for employee safety and team health.

What Is Psychological Safety?
Harvard professor Amy Edmondson coined the term psychological safety with the definition of a “shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking” Psychological safety epitomizes the freedom workers experience when they feel safe to openly communicate with members of their team without fear of retribution or being judged. It is the key to functioning as effectively as possible in a group setting and instrumental in maintaining employee happiness.

Why Is Psychological Safety Important?
Project Aristotle, a two-year study conducted by Google, discovered five components consistently found in high-performing teams:

  • Psychological safety
  • Dependability
  • Structure and clarity
  • Meaning of work
  • Impact of work

The study regards psychological safety as not only the most essential component but also the foundation for the others. If you want a highly efficient and motivated team, you need an atmosphere of trust, respect, and cooperation.

What Are the Benefits of a Psychologically Safe Workplace?
A psychologically safe workplace is massively beneficial to both the employer and the employee. Employees who feel psychologically safe consistently report higher levels of engagement, better performance, and an increased desire to learn at work. 

Group productivity improves greatly in a psychologically safe environment. Employees are more eager to tackle difficult problems because they are less worried about failure or embarrassment. This freedom allows workers to take exciting risks that have the potential to elevate your company to new heights. 2017 Gallup poll found that only 3 in 10 employees strongly agree with the statement that their opinions count at work. Gallup calculated that by “moving that ratio to six in 10 employees, organizations could realize a 27 percent reduction in turnover, a 40 percent reduction in safety incidents and a 12 percent increase in productivity.”

The 2019 People Management Report found that managers who foster an atmosphere of psychological safety are less likely to experience employee turnover.

The Keys to Psychological Safety

TRUST – The foundation of psychological safety is mutual trust. When the atmosphere of a business is characterized by a climate of respect and interpersonal trust, members feel free to collaborate. They also feel secure taking risks, which ultimately enables them to implement rapid innovation. Trust is a two-way street, place faith in your team and in time you will find yourselves relying on each other.

VULNERABILITY – Vulnerability is another pillar of a comfortable working environment. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and admit when you’ve made a mistake or don’t understand the current situation. Other members of your team may be confused as well and thankful you raised your concern. The group will function more effectively when everyone is on the same page and your coworkers might feel more comfortable speaking up in the future.

Tips for increasing vulnerability include sharing personal stories before meetings and asking team members to express a fear they’ve experienced or a risk they’ve taken recently. When workers are able to have conversations of that sort with each other, expressing how they feel in a corporate environment becomes that much easier and more natural.

INCLUSION – Inclusion is also crucial in laying the groundwork for psychological safety. If workers feel excluded from a group or believe their ideas are automatically being dismissed, they most likely won’t feel comfortable voicing their opinions.

Keep everyone on your team involved or you may end up carrying deadweight regardless of how smart or useful that person usually is. All group members should be contributing in order to maximize psychological safety and ensure a mutual feeling of inclusion without any one person dominating the conversation.

Common Misconceptions About Psychological Safety
1) “My whole company is (or isn’t) psychologically safe.”

Psychological safety “lives” at the group level. Certain teams can have a high level of psychological safety while others in the same company might not be open to feedback at all. Management should keep a watchful eye over all teams/departments and ensure that everyone feels comfortable speaking their minds in a collaborative setting.

2) “A psychologically safe workplace is a ‘soft’ workplace.”

“Psychological safety is based on the idea that trust and clear communication from leadership promotes collaborative, motivated employees and teams,” explains Lisa Desai, Psy.D., Chief Behavioral Health Officer at MindWise. “But there can be a misperception that psychological safety is soft – that is lowers the bar on expectations. In fact, a psychologically safe work culture results in better work in terms of quality and quantity and empowers people to voice concerns which can prevent accidents on the job.”

3) “Mistakes are reported less often in a psychologically safe workplace.”

A psychologically safe workplace allows for honest communication between group members. Colleagues are more likely to speak their mind and report a mistake because they feel safe expressing themselves and don’t fear retribution if they happen to be wrong. Fewer avoidable errors slip through the cracks when employees feel empowered to speak up in a trusting environment.

Psychological Safety Is a Necessity in Any Modern Workplace
Cultivating psychological safety is not optional if you value your employees’ personal well-being and mental health or if you intend for your business to reach its maximum productivity.

A psychologically safe atmosphere leads to happier and more efficient employees. Workers are more likely to enjoy their job and to put their best effort into every assignment. Companies that promote it also allow room for people to grow and experiment without harsh repercussions for failure. As employees progress and develop into optimal versions of themselves, the business matures into its peak form as well.