'It stands to reason that people like to be informed and have a role in contributing to decisions,' says academic
New survey data from Wiley’s Workplace Intelligence report suggests workers are far less likely than their managers and senior-level executives to feel psychologically safe taking risks at work.
And there is a particularly wide gulf between individual contributors and executives, which could lead to lower trust, engagement and productivity in the workplace.
The concept of psychological safety refers to an environment where individuals can freely express ideas, voice concerns, take risks and admit mistakes without fear of repercussions. It also supports a concept known as organizational citizenship, whereby an individual working in an organization supports the company's goals over their own in the short and the long term, said Robert Bird, Professor of Business Law at the University of Connecticut.
Psychological safety is one of the underpinnings of an effective workplace and is fundamental to employees being able to be their best selves at work, to be as productive and innovative as they can, and to contribute as much as they can to the organization, he said.
“Employees who do not feel psychologically safe will be less productive and will always be looking behind their backs to see if they've either done something wrong or if they're going to be punished in some way for their actions,” Bird said. “So psychological safety encourages innovation and engagement of employees, and it's something that’s a valuable asset that any company should have.”
Bridging psychological safety gaps between managers and workers
According to Wiley, executives reported having the highest levels of psychological safety at work, with 93% feeling mostly or completely psychologically safe. Meanwhile, individual contributors and managers reported lower levels of psychological safety at 86% each and felt less safe speaking up and less valued for their contributions.
In cases where executives feel more psychologically safe than their employees, this could be a result of particular organizations prioritizing their interests and security at the expense of others, said David Jacobs, adjunct professor at American University’s department of management.
“The people who have the continuing power, who in a sense are the kings and queens of the organization, have every reason to feel safe — they may even define the purpose of the organization — while anyone whose role is contingent upon judgments from above is not going to feel safe,” Jacobs said.
Allowing employees to speak frankly
The first step in bridging this gap between differing levels of psychological safety is recognizing that a gap exists. If a manager believes that because they feel psychologically safe, all of their subordinates are psychologically safe, there is a potential blind spot, Bird said.
“The ability of a middle manager to speak frankly with his or her subordinates is not the essence of psychological safety; it’s the other way around,” he said. “It's lower-level employees being about to speak frankly to their superiors – that’s psychological safety.”
Creating a long-term psychological safe work environment is hard, and it requires a sustained commitment to our ideas that challenge the status quo, Bird said. Managers need to watch how employees engage in work life. They need to allow ideas that create dissent or challenge the status quo and explicitly encourage those ideas and not instill fear in employees that if they speak up, take risks and even make mistakes, their job will be in jeopardy, he said.
“A manager is going to have to bridge the gap by not simply measuring the declarations of his or her subordinates, but by watching and listening to how employees engage in work life,” Bird said. “Do they speak up? Do they take risks? Do they admit failure and ways to correct that failure? And the more frequently that occurs, that's your evidence that psychological safety is happening.”
Psychological safety in remote and hybrid environments
In a post-COVID world, where remote and hybrid work environments have become the norm, psychological safety becomes even more important, as the informal contact and conversation that may occur in-person is lost. This informal contact is a vehicle for trust and collaboration that does not exist as robustly in a remote environment, Bird said.
Not only this, but remote workers’ psychological safety can be further threatened if there is insecurity surrounding their ability to remain working remotely. Recently, employers such as Amazon have begun imposing return to office mandates.
While remote work can be liberating for some, if there is a fear that an organization will switch to a different discipline and cut all the people off who have been working from home, then it's not going to make them feel psychologically safe or secure, especially if the transition is poorly managed, Jacobs said.
“I think what's key is consultation and information. Whether its employees are moving in house or whether they're maintaining virtual or hybrid environments, the question is whether there's clear information about this, no surprises and some discussion and effort to accommodate particular needs,” he said.
“It stands to reason that people like to be informed and have a role in contributing to decisions and that shouldn't be, as they say, rocket science.”