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Why Psychological Safety Is the Key to Organizational Success

From navigating hybrid work and RTO strategies to managing the Great Resignation and the transformative impact of AI on our jobs, leaders are facing unprecedented challenges and increasing pressures on the bottom line. Yet, as the world of work grows more complex, one thing has never been more clear: creating a psychologically safe workspace is essential for sustainable organizational success.



What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety is the shared belief that individuals can voice their ideas, questions, concerns, and mistakes without facing punishment or humiliation. At its core, it values vulnerability by making it acceptable to take risks and admit errors without fear of negative repercussions.


Why is it important?

Psychological safety is the cornerstone of everything from employee engagement to bottom-line results. Teams without it are more likely to fail due to issues of mistrust, poor collaboration, and low morale.

Psychological safety leads to higher engagement and motivation

People are more engaged in team discussions and motivated to speak up when they trust they can share ideas without fear of retribution and believe their contributions matter. We've all experienced those magical team meetings where ideas flow freely and innovation seems effortless. That dynamic is a direct result of psychological safety. Unfortunately, we’ve probably also all witnessed the reverse, either in person or vicariously – Hollywood sure does their part to showcase psychologically unsafe workplaces. Miranda Priestly, anyone


It can lead to better decision-making and continuous improvement.

When people feel comfortable sharing their opinions and concerns, it leads to a more diverse range of perspectives being heard and considered – ultimately resulting in better decisions. And when something does go wrong, psychological safety emphasizes learning from mistakes rather than punishment, thus fostering an environment of group reflection and learning.


It increases retention of diverse employees.

Psychological safety has been shown to boost retention rates for women, people of color, LGBTQ+ employees, people with disabilities, and those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. It acts as an equalizer, allowing diverse and disadvantaged employee groups to attain the same levels of workplace satisfaction as their more advantaged colleagues.


It has financial implications.

Psychological safety has a direct relationship with business outcomes. Its ripple effects extend from fortifying talent retention and igniting innovation to elevating customer service standards and bolstering brand equity.


How do you know if your team has it?

Psychological safety emerges within a group over time, contingent on the right conditions. While many leaders may intuitively gauge their team's psychological safety, there are also more systematic approaches to assess it. Harvard professor Amy Edmondson's research on the subject offers some good insights, including seven yes-or-no questions that offer a quick assessment of a team's psychological safety. Take a moment and assess your team. How did you do?


  1. If you make a mistake on this team, it is not held against you.

  2. Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.

  3. People on this team sometimes accept others for being different.

  4. It is safe to take a risk on this team.

  5. It isn’t difficult to ask other members of this team for help.

  6. No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.

  7. Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.


How can you build it within a team?

While fostering psychological safety is a collective responsibility, the manager plays a huge role in setting the tone.

This happens through implementing effective management practices like establishing clear norms and expectations, expressing gratitude for individuals' insights and contributions, modeling open communication, practicing active listening, and ensuring employees feel supported.

In addition, leaders can accelerate the development of psychological safety with the following tactics:


Actively solicit and value the opinions of others.

Be clear about why you need (and value!) your team’s input. Be specific about how it will impact work outcomes, and set aside dedicated time in team meetings for idea sharing. Also, keep in mind that while some people have no problem speaking up, others may need you to actively ask for their feedback.


Come clean about your own mistakes.

Modeling fallibility and sharing what you learned from making a mistake goes a long way toward normalizing vulnerability. Leaders can’t expect their employees to open up if they’re not willing to do so themselves.


Model appropriate responses.

It's one thing for a leader to tell people it’s OK to make mistakes, but quite another for them to respond with genuine support when someone actually does. If individuals think they'll face blame or punishment, they'll hesitate to speak up. But the antidote to blame is curiosity. Psychological safety increases when leaders shift the focus away from assigning blame and instead steer conversations toward what can be learned from the situation.


A note about hybrid work environments and other new ways of working

Since 2020, there’s been extensive discussion of the visible aspects of flexible work, such as managing remote workers and hybrid teams. However, I’ve seen limited conversation about how these new work formats affect the psychological safety of teams and workplaces – a miss, in my opinion.


Engaging in psychologically safe discussions about flexible work is challenging because these topics often touch on issues of work-life balance and deeply ingrained aspects of employees' identities, values, and choices. The headline here is, “Handle with care.” 


As the lines between work and personal life blur, openly discussing how work is prioritized within your team can be difficult. Whether it's caring for a loved one, managing a health issue, or pursuing a sanctioned side hustle, individuals may feel uncomfortable sharing why they need flexibility.


Even if you've fostered a psychologically safe environment concerning work matters, it may take time for that trust to extend to broader aspects of employees' experiences. My advice to leaders is to go slow and lead by example. Making small disclosures about yourself, such as the fact that you’ll be offline for an event at your child’s school or to take your aging parent to an appointment, can help others feel confident that they won’t be penalized for speaking up about their needs.

In a hybrid or virtual work environment it’s even easier to hide and not be as vulnerable – so we as leaders need to be intentional about how we’re creating a safe work environment…which now extends beyond the physically safe kind.

For example, if you don’t disclose your availability, others on your team may feel they can’t either, which erodes the very principle of psychological safety. In order for a team to operate at its best you want to encourage discussion and learning as opposed to shame or blame.


Regardless of how your team gets work done, having a psychologically safe workplace has never been more important. Leaders at all levels of the organization are recognizing the importance of creating cultures rooted in trust, openness, and inclusivity – where every voice isn't just heard, it's genuinely valued and respected.


Interested in learning more about building human workplaces? Send me a note at Katherine@worksproutpartners.com.

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