Strong teams are built on trust. The freedom to express your thoughts, opinions, and perspectives without judgment is an important part of developing good working relationships. Intentional effort should be directed toward building psychological safety at work to build a better, healthier workplace.

What is psychological safety?

The Center for Creative Leadership proposes that “Psychological safety is the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.” Building psychological safety at work in particular, means knowing that you won’t be embarrassed, rejected or punished for speaking up. Others on the team believe this, too. When this kind of environment is the norm, people are free to be themselves, share their opinion, and participate in collaboration. The whole team wins. 

Why does psychological safety matter?

According to Gallup, only 3 out of 10 employees strongly believe that their opinion counts. Gallup goes on to report findings that suggest “by moving that ratio to 6 in 10 employees, organizations could realize a 27% reduction in turnover, a 40% reduction in safety incidents and a 12% increase in productivity.” Dr. Amy Edmonson, professor at Harvard Business School, confirms that “psychological safety predicts quality improvements, learning behavior and productivity.” Building psychological safety at work improves the engagement and performance of your most valuable resource – your people. 

How do you build psychological safety at work?

In response to the disappointing number of employees who believe their opinion matters, gathering your team and asking great questions is a good step toward building psychological safety at work. Gallup consultant, Jake Herway, posed these four questions to a team that was struggling with psychological safety and productivity:

  1. What can we count on each other for?
  2. What is our team’s purpose?
  3. What is the reputation we aspire to have?
  4. What do we need to do differently to achieve that reputation and fulfill our purpose?

In his estimation, he believes the order of questions is equally as important as the questions themselves for the greatest impact. As each person answers these questions with the help of a great facilitator (sometimes a neutral party – like a trained consultant), trust is built as individual strengths are revealed and people begin to know who to rely on and how to better listen to one another.

In the absence of a neutral facilitator, a team leader can still make progress toward building psychological safety at work. Some of the ways a leader can do this is to: 

  1. Be a collaborator instead of an adversary – partner with others in decision making.
  2. Show respect – speak human to human recognizing each of us is unique.
  3. Anticipate objections and plan your response – consider the barriers and have a proposed way through them.
  4. Be curious – trade blame for an “I wonder” mindset.
  5. Ask for feedback – have an observer evaluate a conversation and provide feedback.
  6. Measure trust – periodically ask people questions that determine how well you’re building psychological safety at work.

Building psychological safety at work leads to high performing teams, retention of your best people, and a strong reputation that will make you a sought-after workplace today and tomorrow.