Cat DiStasio shares some of the actions organizations can take to create a psychologically safe workplace.
Nearly every person has had experiences at work where they felt less than comfortable, when they worried about what someone might say about their idea or question, or when they held back from weighing in on a topic for one reason or another. A lot of this comes down to psychological safety, a shared feeling that it’s acceptable to express oneself, ask questions, and admit mistakes without facing punishment or ridicule. When people don’t feel psychologically safe at work, they’re less likely to speak up with ideas and concerns, meaning their teams might miss out on important considerations or solutions.
Psychological safety falls under the umbrella of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB), especially the IB part. We understand diversity in the sense of demographic representation and equity largely as it relates to compensation and career advancement, but businesses largely struggle to measure the other components of DEIB. Inclusion and belonging are more often about feelings and experiences and, when both are present, they can create an environment where psychological safety is not just possible, but can thrive.
8 ways to build a psychologically safe place to work
Unfortunately, the reality of psychological safety in the workplace is that it’s lacking. In 2021, McKinsey reported that just 26% of leaders create psychological safety for their teams. That’s a pretty sad stat but it also marks a huge opportunity for positive impact. And fortunately, there are many, many things leaders can do to foster more psychological safety at work.
Here are eight inclusive practices for creating a more psychologically safe workplace, along with concrete suggestions you can get started with right away. Feel free to pick and choose the ideas that are easiest to do now, and make a plan to add in others over time.
1. Make room for mistakes and experimentation
Fear of failure, embarrassment, or criticism can prevent employees from feeling comfortable at work, meaning they aren’t likely to feel they can show up as themselves. Many people feel the need to mask at work for various reasons, from neurodivergent behaviors to personality quirks. The problem is, when people feel stifled like this, the team might overlook the best solutions to a problem, innovative product ideas, or other valuable suggestions, simply because they never see the light of day.
- Adopt a ‘no bad ideas’ philosophy
- Avoid communication and actions that ‘punish’ people when their ideas don’t pan out
- Encourage innovative ideas through group brainstorming sessions
2. Avoid ‘blame culture’
Blame culture is easy to spot when you’re in it. It happens when people in the workplace tend to focus first on who is at fault for a mistake, rather than on coming up with solutions. This creates an environment where employees are likely to withhold ideas or actions out of fear. And it’s especially harmful when employees have frequent negative experiences with their manager around blame. Harvard Business Review calls blame culture “toxic” and damaging to relationships, both of which are difficult to overcome.
- As a leader, admit your mistakes
- Turn mistakes into teachable moments
- Focus on coming up with solutions or preventing future mistakes
3. Recognize and appreciate employees’ contributions
Belonging, which by definition is closely linked with psychological safety, has been dubbed a top driver of employee engagement. One of the most effective ways to boost engagement is with regular recognition. Research by Gallup and Workhuman found that employees who receive regular, meaningful recognition are 20 times as likely to be engaged, compared with employees who receive poor recognition. That gap illustrates the value of prioritizing recognition, and it doesn’t have to be time-consuming or expensive.
- Create formal employee recognition programs
- Encourage peer-to-peer recognition
- Show appreciation for attempts and efforts as well as successes
- Reward people according to their preferences (e.g. offer a choice of awards, including cash bonuses)
4. Advocate for diversity
Diversity is about much more than recruiting and hiring demographics. It also includes disabilities, neurodivergence, military status, and many other largely invisible traits. On one hand, this means we can never know or measure how truly diverse a team is because many people choose not to share their personal details at work. On the other hand, people know themselves and if they feel ‘othered’ at work in any way, it can get in the way of psychological safety. The solution is proactive, open support for diversity – as in, ‘the more ideas and perspectives, the better’. It’s crucial that the mindset around diversity shifts from one of checking boxes to embracing the unique experiences and insights each person brings to the table. That is the true meaning, and benefit, of diversity.
- Ask team members about their goals and priorities, and what they need to achieve them
- Adapt communication styles to employees’ needs and preferences (e.g. emails vs video calls, optional video use during group meetings)
- Match employees with projects/learning opportunities based on their unique skills/talents/goals
- Support Employee Resource Groups so employees can build connections and find support
5. Lead with empathy and compassion
Empathy and compassion are tightly entangled but they are not the same thing. Empathy is ‘putting yourself in someone else’s shoes’ or experiencing another person’s emotions as if they were yours. Compassion builds on empathy with altruism, the concern for others’ wellbeing and desire to alleviate their suffering. To create a truly inclusive work culture, empathy and compassion must both be present, especially in the attitudes and behaviors of leaders.
- Practice active listening (ideally through regular 1:1 check-ins)
- Ask what support/resources employees need to be successful and follow through with providing it
- Pay attention to nonverbal clues about a person’s mood or experience
6. Build trust through transparency
Clear communication and honesty can build trust, which is foundational to feeling psychologically safe. Over the years, transparent communication has been consistently linked with better employee engagement and higher profit, among other benefits. Many people actively prioritize and seek out transparency in the professional sphere, so a work culture built on transparent communication can support talent attraction and may even improve employee retention.
- Communicate transparently and regularly about performance feedback
- Share organizational objectives and changes, budgets, and staffing issues
- Help employees visualize a clear career path
7. Help your employees meet their basic needs
Psychological safety is in danger when basic needs aren’t being met. Basic (or physiological) needs are the foundation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and include food, water, and shelter. The second tier of the pyramid (safety) includes financial security and, in our modern world, access to adequate mental and physical healthcare. Because nearly all of these needs are closely tied with employment, it’s the employer’s responsibility to help employees navigate the growing challenges of meeting these needs. It’s about much more than a paycheck, although competitive and appropriate compensation is a great place to start when creating strategies around taking care of employees in the most basic ways.
- Offer flexible work arrangements (e.g. hybrid schedule, flexible hours)
- Help employees access benefits by creating a bridge to HR
- Review workloads and compensation across the team for equity and to prevent burnout
8. Be vulnerable with your team
Above all else, psychological safety is about the human experience and specifically feeling comfortable and connected with the other humans you work with every day. People at all levels of an organization can lead by example but, in terms of shaping an inclusive culture, employees in leadership positions have the greatest potential impact.
- Admit your mistakes and the lessons you learned
- Ask for help and feedback from your team
- Share (appropriately) about your challenges
Being psychologically safe is a business advantage
Everyone has the right to psychological safety in the workplace. With the right mindset, policies, and practices, leaders can foster feelings of inclusion and belonging, build trust, and create an environment that allows people to bring their authentic selves to work, along with their valuable perspectives and innovative ideas.