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Psychological Safety in the Workplace Is The New Yardstick Of Inclusion

As mental health, belonging and inclusion are high priorities for many workers, ensuring psychological safety in your workplace has never been more crucial to team performance and employee satisfaction and should be a central pillar of any DEIB strategy.

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety is the feeling that you can talk about your ideas, ask questions and voice your concerns without being punished or ridiculed.

Within the workplace, it can also refer to a shared belief of a team that other members will listen to what they have to say without the fear of rejection or embarrassment.

Psychological safety hinges on several conditions including:

  • Organisational support for inclusion and individuality.
  • Respect for each other.
  • Clarity on performance, empowering workers to celebrate successes and learn from mistakes -a vital ingredient for psychological safety.
  • Management that values diverse voices and fosters a sense of belonging.

According to a recent global survey by McKinsey, just 43% of respondents report a positive team climate (a key ingredient for psychological safety) at work.

What can businesses do to ensure they create the right, safe culture for employees?

Why is psychological safety key to high performing teams?

Google believes that more great work can be achieved when people work together than when they work alone. Drawing on wisdom from Greek philosopher Aristotle, who once said ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’, Project Aristotle was born and Google embarked on a mission to answer the question ‘what makes an effective team?’.

By studying a range of high-performing and low-performing teams and assessing both team composition and team dynamic, Project Aristotle identified what can impact a team’s effectiveness. They found that an effective team mainly relies on these five factors:

  • Psychological safety -team members feel safe to take risks and be themselves in front of their co-workers.
  • Dependability -team members listen and share ideas and get things done to Google’s high standards.
  • Structure and clarity -team members make valuable contributions, have clear plans and know their goals.
  • Meaning -team members feel that their work is personally important.
  • Impact -team members know that their work matters and makes positive changes.

Psychological safety was found to be of utmost importance to a high performing team, both for protecting workers’ mental health and as a key ingredient to the running of a successful team.

The importance of belonging

Psychological safety has its roots in workers feeling as if they ‘belong’ in their team and in their workplace.

American author Peter Block’s encourages readers to shift their perspective on company community to bring about the qualities of a true sense of belonging in his book Community: The Structure of Belonging.

He says that belonging is our strongest psychological need and suggests that true belonging requires us to be our true selves.

Finding a sense of belonging is a fundamental part of being human and we are built for making meaningful connections with each other. A 2020 MIT study found that human craving for interaction has the same neural basis as the food cravings we get when we’re hungry.

Another survey of around 1700 US employees found that when workers feel like they ‘belong’ within their team, a number of fantastic things happen, including:

  • A 56% increase in job performance
  • A 50% drop in the risk of staff turnover
  • A 75% drop in sick days

The same survey found that workers are also 3.5 times more likely to be fully engaged with their work, if they feel a true sense of belonging and are psychologically safe.

The opportunity to get it right

Of course, with only 43% of recent respondents to a McKinsey survey reporting a positive climate within their team, psychological safety still isn’t a universal phenomenon in the working world. While this means many companies are bringing about change, there are some notable examples of large, global companies getting it very wrong.

Surveillance cameras that follow employees’ every move at work, hard to achieve quotas, the fear of summary dismissal are all factors that erode psychological safety and can lead to negative media coverage when employees whistle blow about working conditions at a particular company.

Complaints about bullying, sexual harassment and unfair treatment, especially if employees don’t feel that HR will help if they file a complaint, are another sign that psychological safety may not be a management priority.

Social media is another powerful tool for employee discontent. Some workers have taken to TikTok to complain about employers insisting on home workers keeping webcams on at all times. While the videos have led to employees being fired, they have sparked heated discussions about toxic work environments -even when someone is in the safety of their own home.

Visible progress

Last year, Unilever trained over 4000 members of staff globally to become mental health champions and ‘sense check’ their wellbeing efforts with their employees every month. Staff are asked questions such as ‘are you able to speak up when there is a challenge from a mental health standpoint?’. Teams scoring in the bottom 30% of this sense check are then given more mindfulness and wellbeing training, enabling the company to regularly track psychological safety levels amongst its workers.

In the US, Nestle employees have access to $500 a year through their Lifestyle Spending Account. They can use this money to improve their physical, mental or financial wellbeing by spending it on student loan payments, fitness classes, spa days or leisure equipment. Nestle also operate a Speak Up policy, where employees are encouraged to speak up about their safety concerns without any repercussions.

Fostering psychological safety in your workplace

Professor Amy C. Edmondson of Harvard Business School says that leaders must ask themselves four questions to measure psychological safety in their workplace:

  • To what degree is it permissible to make mistakes?
  • To what degree can difficult or sensitive topics be discussed?
  • How much are people willing to help each other?
  • To what degree can people be themselves and are accepted for this?

If your company can score positively in all four of these areas, it’s likely to be a psychologically safe workplace.

In her TEDx talk, Edmondson said that leaders should ‘frame the work as a learning problem — not an execution problem — acknowledge your own fallibility, and model curiosity and ask lots of questions.’

While progress has been made on mental health and emotional wellbeing, measures such as yoga classes and meditation apps often aren’t enough to instil a permanent, profound culture of compassion and acceptance within the company.

Leaders who understand the importance and the power of psychological safety are far more likely to lead truly happy, successful teams.

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