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Why is psychological safety important in the workplace?

Jan 29, 2024

4 minute read

Introduction

“Psychological safety means an absence of interpersonal fear. When psychological safety is present, people are able to speak up with work-relevant content.” – Amy Edmondson (2020)

The concept of psychological safety in the workplace is widely discussed. This blog will delve into the origins, the importance of psychological safety, and its significance for neurodivergent employees. One organisation that has gained recognition for its commitment to prioritising psychological safety is Google, which through Project Aristotle where they studied hundreds of their employees, found that psychological safety was the most significant factor in creating a successful and innovative team. Creating this environment also increases staff retention as people are 10 times more likely to quit their jobs because of toxic work cultures (Harvard Business Review, 2022).

Unlocking workplace potential  

Approximately 1 in 7 adults in the UK are neurodiverse and it is well known that many neurodivergent employees are hesitant to disclose their neurodivergence due to concerns about potential negative repercussions or altered perceptions from colleagues or managers (NHS Employers, 2023). Neurodivergent individuals often experience feelings of isolation and are more susceptible to mental health challenges. Consequently, they may not receive adequate support or reasonable adjustments, and the unspoken difficulties they face, together with the accumulative effect of masking can result in decreased productivity, burnout, or resignation. Creating a psychologically safe environment, where people feel comfortable disclosing, raising concerns, and making suggestions, will lead to happier employees who can unleash their full potential.

The foundations of innovation

As mentioned, one of the key reasons psychological safety is paramount in the workplace is its role in promoting innovation. Psychological safety was first coined in 1999 by Harvard professor Dr. Amy Edmondson, whose observations revealed that companies fostering a trusting workplace outperform those lacking such environment. She highlights the necessity for organisations that cultivate a culture of trust in their workplace tend to outperform their competitors. Furthermore, a survey conducted by McKinsey & Company in 2018 substantiates this with 89% of employees recognising the essential role of psychological safety in the workplace. This signifies a shift in priorities as leaders navigate the challenges of leadership in an evolving professional landscape.

Communication for success

Organisational consultant Dr. Timothy Clark’s book on psychological safety highlights the importance of open dialogue in the workplace and provides a research-based four-stage framework to assist in the facilitation of creating a psychologically safe environment where employees feel able to communicate concerns and make effective contributions.

Stage 1: inclusion safety – Establishing an inclusive culture from the hiring process through inductions, personal story sharing, and ongoing avenues for connection.

Stage 2: learner safety – Fostering a safe environment where employees freely exchange ideas, ask questions, and receive feedback whilst embracing the learning process.

Stage 3: contributor safety – Creating an environment where employees feel secure contributing to organisational goals, such as shaping standards and developing training programs.

Stage 4: challenger safety – Acknowledging psychological safety as an ongoing process for workplace improvement, ensuring a continuous sense of safety, and identifying opportunities for enhancement without risking personal standing or reputation.  

The collaborative advantage

Both Edmondson and Clark emphasise the correlation between psychological safety and employee satisfaction and retention. A workplace that prioritises employees’ well-being and values their contributions is more likely to retain top talent and create a positive company culture. Establishing a psychologically safe workplace requires a commitment from the business leaders, and it starts with open communication and changing cultural norms. Creating this environment will lead to improved staff retention, increased productivity, greater innovation, and reduced burnout.

Leadership’s critical role in creating high-performing teams

Recognising the vital connection between employees’ sense of safety and its profound impact on organisation success lies in cultivating effective leadership. However, a staggering 74% of leaders remain unaware of this evolving imperative in today’s workplace landscape (McKinsey & Company, 2021).

According to a survey conducted by McKinsey & Company in 2021, the pillar for fostering psychological safety within teams is a positive team climate. The same survey indicated that this climate is most effectively established when leaders exhibit supportive and consultative behaviours. Distinctively, authoritative behaviours were identified as counterproductive to psychological safety.

Conclusion

To summarise, the importance of psychological safety in the workplace cannot be overstated. Research by Edmondson and Clark highlights its pivotal in promoting innovation, collaboration, and employee well-being. Additionally, it’s essential to recognise that psychological safety is a dynamic aspect that evolves throughout the team’s journey and adapts alongside the workplace landscape.

For assistance in promoting psychological safety in the workplace and creating an environment where neurodiverse employees can thrive, contact us at hello@thriiver.co.uk. Our Neurodiversity awareness training courses – for employees and managers are a great place to start.

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