Do your people feel ‘psychologically safe’ at work?

From empathetic leadership to EI – how safe your employees feel is linked to innovation

Do your people feel ‘psychologically safe’ at work?

Psychological safety and inclusivity are becoming increasingly recognized as pillars of a successful organization. A recent study from Wiley found that just 53% if employees ‘feel safe’ taking risks at work – for managers that figure rose to 64%, 71% for directors and 76% for executives. It’s clear that there’s a disconnect here – one in which seniority seems to correlate with bravery to the detriment of innovation.

Drawing from her experience at T Works, Tina Varughese highlights a wealth of strategies that foster a supportive and empathetic workplace culture and encourage psychological safety in the workplace. 

Among these strategies is safety check-ins, which Varughese believes to be the cornerstone of any psychologically safe space. This approach underscores her belief in high-touch communication over high-tech methods; by regularly checking in with employees, leaders can gauge what's working and what's not, ensuring that the workplace adapts to the ever-changing needs of its workforce.

“I call them safety check-ins or just a weekly check-in,” she says. “I think that people want connection and collaboration, and you can do that remotely, you can do that in person, but sometimes being able to see people's faces and hearing that vocal intonation when checking in on a weekly basis [is beneficial].” 

Bringing your whole self to work

These weekly check-ins and regular communication can help facilitate comfort and trust between employees and their leaders and ensure that the difficult conversations aren’t so difficult anymore.  As employees become more comfortable sharing their personal experiences, a deeper sense of connection and empathy develops within the team.

This approach fosters a more holistic understanding of each team member’s life, contributing to a more supportive and flexible work environment.

“Eventually, we'll start to share those experiences that we're having from a personal perspective because I don't know if I truly believe in work-life balance. I believe in work-life blend, work-life busyness,” she says.  

This goes hand in hand with leaders being empathetic towards employees. Moving beyond traditional definitions of leadership, Varughese views empathy as a critical leadership quality. This perspective shifts the focus from hierarchical structures to the more human aspects of leadership, emphasizing the power of empathy to create a more connected and understanding workplace environment. 

The role of empathy is psychological safety

“I think empathy is a key and I don't define a leader by title, rank, or position but rather by those that can influence, inspire, an impact at the workplace,” she says.  

Empathy is not only important in creating a psychologically safe workplace but also in creating an inclusive environment. While working with a client in the long-term healthcare sector, Varughese experienced firsthand how employees speaking in their mother tongues, while not problematic during breaks, can create barriers during work hours.

To address this, she facilitated an understanding of belonging versus longing to belong, helping the staff realize the impact of their actions on others.  

“They didn’t understand their impact at the end of the day until we simulated what that feels like to belong versus longing to belong,” Varughese says.        

In multicultural settings such as these, the importance of sensitivity and the presence of a third-party perspective cannot be understated, as this ensures that messages are conveyed subtly yet effectively, avoiding potential misunderstandings or negative reactions. Varughese believes this method is particularly effective in hierarchical and indirect cultures, where direct directives from leadership could be misinterpreted. 

Humour boosts productivity

Additionally, the transition from siloed work cultures to collaborative and inclusive environments is an essential one. According to Varughese, collective effort is important, and using.” Employee Resource Groups can help break down silos and encourage cross-divisional collaboration. These groups not only bring diverse perspectives together but also align employees more closely with the organization's purpose. 

Ultimately, creating a workplace culture that is psychologically safe, inclusive and empathetic, has a significant impact on workplace on productivity. According to Varughese, a positive environment, characterized by humor and laughter, can increase productivity by at least 12%. Conversely, a negative culture can decrease productivity by a similar margin.

This insight underscores the importance of cultivating a positive, engaging workplace atmosphere for enhanced productivity and employee satisfaction. 

“Sometimes if we don't laugh about it, we're going to cry about it,” Varughese says. “So, if we can minimally find ways to have more fun, have more laughter and humor in the workplace, people tend to be more engaged, more productive, more collaborative, and they feel psychologically safe at the end of the day. So, I encourage it in every capacity.” 

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