If you’re a leader in an Australian workplace, you’ve probably heard the term ‘psychological safety’ a lot more in recent years. In this blog, we explain why that’s the case. And we share some ideas to help build and strengthen a speak up team culture in your workplace, drawing on new research on leadership which informs our education programs.
- Psychological safety is a shared belief held by members of a team that it’s safe to speak up with questions, ideas and concerns without fear of negative consequences.
- The importance of a workplace culture where it’s safe to speak up underpins two new reforms – one to help identify psychosocial hazards at work, and one to prevent sexual harassment.
- Recent research highlights four stages of psychological safety, starting with inclusion safety and culminating with challenger safety – where you feel safe to challenge the status quo without fear of retaliation or retribution.
- Under-represented and marginalised groups are more likely to experience lower levels of psychological safety, due to microaggressions and unconscious biases in the workplace.
- Organisations can measure the experience of psychological safety through engagement surveys and filter this data by different identity groups (such as gender, cultural background, people with disability). This helps determine actions for a company’s diversity and inclusion strategy.
- Education helps leaders identify behaviours that help create psychological safety in team meetings and in day-to-day interactions (and identify behaviours that hinder safety).
- Subtle actions that affirm contributions and confirm belief in a person’s potential (micro-validations) are motivating for individuals and help build a workplace culture of collaboration and inclusion.
Professor Amy Edmondson from Harvard Business School – probably the best-known researcher in the field – describes psychological safety as a shared belief held by members of a team that it’s safe to speak up with questions, ideas and concerns without fear of negative consequences.
Interest in psychological safety has exploded, says Dr Timothy R. Clark, author of The Four Stages of Psychological Safety, because organisations around the world have two common goals: ‘to create sanctuaries of inclusion and incubators of innovation’.
The term was first coined by Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis at MIT in 1965, and has steadily gained prominence through the work of Amy Edmondson and, more recently, a significant three-year study of 180 teams at Google (called Project Aristotle) that identified psychological safety was the most important ingredient of high performing teams.
In Australian workplaces, two new legislative reforms have accelerated the prioritisation of psychological safety over the past year. Firstly, workplace health and safety reforms now require many organisations to identify and mitigate psychosocial hazards that can cause harm to our mental health such as low job control, exposure to traumatic events or material, and harassment. Secondly, a new positive duty on employers to eliminate sexual harassment requires employers to focus more on preventative efforts in the workplace culture.
What underpins these reforms is the importance of a workplace culture where it’s safe to speak up.
‘What underpins new workplace reforms in Australia is the importance of a workplace culture where it’s safe to speak up.’
A staged approach to developing psychological safety
Dr Timothy R Clark sums up the essence of psychological safety in five words: ‘an environment of rewarded vulnerability’. When we enter groups of any kind, he explains, we try to understand whether vulnerability is rewarded or punished. If it’s unsafe, we go into survival mode and withdraw. If it’s safe, we thrive.
Dr Clark’s research highlights four stages of psychological safety. Challenger Safety – where you feel safe to challenge the status quo without fear of retaliation or retribution – is the culmination of the four stages, and the ‘domain of innovation’.
Differing experiences of psychological safety
While the concept of creating a psychologically safe environment may sound relatively simple, it’s often hard in practice. Many studies highlight the reluctance of employees to speak up, with some suggesting around 50 per cent of employees keep quiet at work.
Fear of retribution, fear of not being taken seriously, and concern whether new ideas will be welcomed can keep us quiet. That’s especially so if we’re not part of the dominant majority group.
There’s a growing body of research showing how under-represented and marginalised groups are more likely to experience lower levels of psychological safety, due to microaggressions and unconscious biases in the workplace. Those of us who have experienced systemic discrimination in Australia – such as women, gender-diverse people, culturally and racially marginalised people, LGBTIQ+ people, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, may feel discouraged from speaking up.
Inclusion expert Ruchika Tulshyan cites Modupe Akinola, an associate professor of management at Columbia Business School about this pressure: ‘When you’re in the numerical minority or different from everybody else, then you’re going to feel pressure to self-censor. Just by nature of being one of the only makes an environment feel less psychologically safe.’
What can organisations do?
A good first step is to understand the experience of psychological safety among employees. Many organisations include these types of questions in engagement surveys:
- I feel safe to speak up if I have a different point of view;
- We seek out different perspectives when solving problems;
- I am confident to speak up when I observe or experience inappropriate behaviour;
- I am confident to speak up when I observe or experience subtle acts of exclusion (microaggressions).
Then it’s important to measure the experience for different identity cohorts (such as gender, people with disability, cultural background, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and LGBTIQ+ people) for a more nuanced, intersectional approach. This can lead to identifying actions that can be integrated in the firm’s diversity and inclusion strategy.
What can leaders do?
Modern leaders, says Dr Kirstin Ferguson in her new book, play an important role in ensuring we create a space for all voices, not just the loudest ones. This is a way to help demonstrate the head and heart of modern leadership.
In our education programs, we help leaders identify behaviours that assist in creating psychological safety in team meetings and day-to-day interactions (and identify behaviours that hinder safety).
Here’s some practical examples we share and explore:
- Explicitly welcome differing approaches at the start of your meeting.
- Challenge unconscious biases where we gravitate to similarity in thinking or hiring practices (affinity bias).
- Share what you’re learning.
- Ask team members ‘what are you struggling with?’
- Encourage others to contribute first when you hold positional power (to avoid sunflower bias).
- Ask for everyone’s view where possible – don’t take silence as an indication of agreement or disagreement.
- Role-model asking questions like ‘why do we do it this way?’, ‘what if we tried this?’
- Suspend judgement when debating ideas: look for a mutual way forward.
A final note: micro-validations are key
What consistently stands out in our one-on-one coaching sessions with leaders about creating psychologically safe environments is the value of micro-validations – for everyone.
These are ‘subtle but powerful actions or language that demonstrate affirmation, encouragement, and belief in a person’s potential.’ This might be giving feedback that acknowledges a positive contribution or acknowledging someone’s experience of feeling excluded.
We love this simple reminder from Dr Timothy Clark: ‘If you’re a leader and want your people to perform, you must internalise the universal truth that people want, need, and deserve validation.’
You can learn more about our programs for leaders and employees about psychological safety on our website.