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Are You Creating a Psychologically Safe Workplace?

Updated: Apr 16, 2022

2021's newest buzz word... or is it?

Well, are you? It's a big question to open up with, isn't it? Psychological safety, you may have heard the term. 2020 saw workplaces change in a rapid way, and along with that was a heightened focus on wellbeing, and creating psychologically safe workplaces. In fact, AHRI reports that having psychologically safe workplaces is in the top 10 requirements for future skills. Amy Edmonson coined the term, and has a brilliant TedX talk you can check out here.

What is psychological safety? Depending on where you started, some of you have certainly worked in a workplace where you’re so scared to make a mistake or to speak up and point out a mistake.

Maybe you’ve never experienced it before, but you’ve certainly seen it in other workplaces or heard about it.

So, you know how demoralising it can be for many people if they are continually coming up with good ideas only to be told no for the sake of someone else’s ego or because of someone else’s fear.

In such an environment, the fear of failure and speaking out is prevalent, which is not conducive to creating a courageous culture.

But it’s human nature for things to go wrong and poorly at some point. Since it’s a natural phenomenon, it’s absolutely okay to mess up once in a while (unless you’re a brain surgeon!) so long as you keep moving forward.

It’s this concept of acceptance that is at the centre of psychological safety.

HR experts worldwide say creating psychological safety is one of the top five soft skills people need to develop.

It was something that wasn’t recognised in the past because people couldn’t measure it.

Now, people acknowledge that creating psychologically safe workplaces is fundamental in attracting and retaining staff. It ensures that staff have the mental safety and robust communication to show up to work and adequately perform.

In such a workplace, people leverage their abilities and talents to take the business to the great heights that it can reach.

Fear-based leadership promotes the opposite

Unfortunately, some leaders would rather promote a psychologically unsafe workplace.

If you’ve ever had a boss who is more worried about protecting their position and avoiding all risks than supporting new ideas or forging new ground, you know what I mean.

This is the type of boss whose fear rubs off on those around them. They’re the kind of person who is more preoccupied with looking after their pride, power and position than empowering their team around, improving processes or experimenting with fresh ideas.

Early on in my career, I had a boss who fits the bill and it was terrible working with him. He was constantly in a terrible mood. I could never have any conversation with him. He was a bit sweary which wasn’t great either.

Now that I’ve worked with many types of leaders, I know that such bosses use fear as a leadership tool. Because they fear that their reputations will be damaged and people will discover they’re imposters, they incite fear in others.

But one of the greatest threats to any business is the fear that resides within its own walls.

Fear leads to risk aversions, short-sighted decision making and blind conformity.

If you are a courageous leader, you don’t want to create more people who are exactly the same. You want to look at creative options and ideas to grow your business. You want to create a psychologically safe workplace.

Tips to create a psychologically safe work environment

1. Role model the way for psychological safety.

Everything starts with you.

I’ve established that fear-based leadership doesn’t work. When everyone’s too frightened, innovation doesn’t happen. Fresh ideas aren’t shared. Not a lot of teamwork occurs because everyone’s watching their back. Over time, the fear spreads. This limits opportunities to have conversations, stifles innovation and drives creative people to play safe or, worse, exit the business.

So, you want to do the opposite of the traditional bossy boss.

2. Share a sense of mission.

You need to get people onboard and engaged through intrinsic motivation.

3. Help people feel comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Lean into your comfort zone. As Brene Brown states, you can either have discomfort or comfort. You can’t have both.

It’s true. You need to have a bit of that uncomfortable feeling within your workplace because that is where growth happens.

4. Reframe the risk of failure.

If you’ve worked on projects, you know one of the best mottos to deliver is “Fail fast.”

Try something. If it fails, good. Chalk it up as a failure and move on to the next thing.

So, reframe failure as feedback. You didn’t fail. You learned something.

5. Be humble and listen well.

Listen to understand rather than listen to respond. How often do you take the time to really listen to the people around you? It only takes a few minutes of asking open-ended or coaching questions. Then listen to the answers. Doing so will have a

profound impact on psychological safety.

In this age of real-life and virtual connections, soft skills are important to maintain those relationships. So, it’s time to scrub up your soft skills.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a new business owner or have a small team or have a team of teams, leaders today need to focus on developing these soft skills. So, either add a few pieces in your arsenal or amplify what you’ve already got.

Until next time, Eat the Frog, Get the Worm, and Be the Bird


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