Is your workplace a ‘psychologically safe’ environment?

"If you attack someone's idea in a meeting but then give them a compliment, the two aren't equal"

Is your workplace a ‘psychologically safe’ environment?

If a manager approaches your desk, do you feel a sense of anxiety? If your team wants to challenge an idea or offer a different perspective, do they feel free to speak up?

These are both examples of psychological safety - or a potential lack thereof - in the workplace. Organisations have focused heavily on mental health and well-being at work over the last few years, but many still lack an awareness of psychological safety, how it can impact your team and the consequences of an unsafe culture.

What is psychological safety?

According to Evynn McFalls, Global Vice President, Marketing & Brand at Neuroleadership Institute, the core principle is that people should not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions or concerns, or for making mistakes. In a psychologically safe environment, honesty is welcomed, and flaws are exposed in a way that allows people to mitigate and correct them.

He notes that psychological safety is not just a ‘nice to have’ - in many industries, it can make a critical difference to your output and results.

“When we feel psychologically safe, we are more likely to innovate and arrive at better ideas,” McFalls says.

“This can be really important in environments like a clinical or medical centre, for example. People are less likely to conceal small errors which can have a significantly negative impact on patient outcomes or physical safety.”

“There are some more extreme examples of this going wrong,” he explains.

“In an industry where physical safety is critically important like the mining industry, manufacturing or aerospace, if the culture is highly punitive and people are afraid to disclose mistakes, the end result can be that people's lives are endangered.”

While leaders are often tasked with setting the culture and modelling behaviours, McFalls notes that psychological safety is impacted by everyone in an organisation, regardless of their rank or job title. The small choices and habits we engage in every day can either enhance or detract from a sense of safety. When implementing a psychological safety initiative, it is therefore vital to do so in a way that educates the whole organisation - something Neuroleadership Institute has been doing for the last 25 years.

How do you measure and improve psychological safety?

Drawing on the work of Amy Edmondson, a world-leading expert on this topic, Neuroleadership Institute has developed a series of tests to gauge the culture of an organisation.

This might include conducting an organisational climate survey, or a behaviour change pulse. These tools allow you to see how often people engage in habits that build psychological safety, and examine what systems you might need to create in order to foster a safer environment.

“Focusing on habits in particular is a powerful measure, because priorities, habits and systems are all connected, and your company culture is ultimately the result,” McFalls says.

“The most important part is making it an ‘all hands on deck’ initiative, so it’s not just something that trickles down from leaders issuing an edict. Getting everyone involved in modelling that behaviour makes it much more likely for that change to happen quickly, and for change to be sustained.”

Neuroleadership Institute also uses the SCARF model, which is based on five key concepts that influence psychological safety. Co-founder and CEO Dr David Rock says that understanding these concepts is important, as they will inform the habits that managers and employees need to build.

SCARF stands for status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. Dr Rock notes that these can either present themselves positively or negatively, and this will directly influence the culture of your organisation.

“If you attack someone’s idea in a meeting but then give them a compliment, the two aren’t equal - it still creates uncertainty around whether or not you should speak up,” he explains.

“Feeling slightly anxious is okay, but it’s feeling that strong sense of danger that’s a problem. You can be nervous about a big project, but you don’t want to feel any social threat.”

To embed a sense of safety, Dr Rock says there are three key sets of habits. The first is setting the stage, which is about creating an understanding that mistakes are necessary and that speaking up is essential.

The second habit is around inviting participation, not just waiting for people to speak up.

“One way for managers to do that is to have situational humility, where they recognise that there’s a lot they don’t know and show they are curious about other people’s perspectives,” Dr Rock says.

“The third habit is to respond thoughtfully. This means to be warm and inviting, and also to challenge when necessary - but to do it kindly.”

Neuroleadership Institute’s mission is to make the workplace a better environment for humans through science. It provides workshops, seminars and other resources which allow organisations to learn about the science of these habits, how they work, and how they can enact these habits themselves.

To learn more about how to create a psychologically safe work environment, click here to read NLI's Perspectives on Psychological Safety whitepaper.  

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