Psychological safety is a concept that dates back as far as the 1960s. Yet despite decades of research exploring its importance, when it comes to the business world, we’ve barely scratched the surface.
Many companies are only just coming around to the idea that being “vulnerable” at work isn’t a weakness, but a strength. COVID-19 ignited a powderkeg of emotions, forcing employees to work remotely while caring for their parents, partners, pets, and kids. For most, it was a somber reminder of just how important it is to prioritize the body, yes, but also the mind.
Employees haven’t forgotten their COVID experience, and they likely never will. As The Great Resignation has shown, the old way of work just isn’t cutting it. People are done suppressing their emotions for the sake of “professionalism.” They want to work for companies that treat them as humans, not cogs—and they’re willing to quit to find those safe havens.
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5 ways to build a culture of psychological safety in 2023
Psychological safety isn’t something you create; it’s something you earn. As a business or HR leader, you set the tone for your company—and people. Model behaviors that promote safety and trust, and you’ll be met with engagement, loyalty, and high performance.
We’ve got you covered. Below are five strategies you and your HR team can employ to build a culture of psychological safety—and become a bastion for high-level talent.
1. Eliminate the word “taboo.”
It might seem counterintuitive to build psychological safety with a “say anything, anytime” open invitation. Yet, dig a little under the surface, and it becomes clear why this strategy works.
For decades, employers have predicated the notion of being “professional” in the workplace. Employees are expected to dress a certain way, behave just like their peers and superiors, and otherwise fall within the parameters dictated by the company and its culture.
You can see where this might go wrong.
It’s a classic case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And yet, if your business is looking to become a leader in your market, you’ll never get there abiding by the status quo. By establishing the idea that nothing is off limits, you essentially eliminate the status quo altogether.
According to Trish Davis-Gray (they/them), a Staff Learning Experience Designer at PI, not only does this promote innovation, but it also enables trust when great ideas inevitably clash. “When you’re in disagreement, you can ‘discuss the undiscussable,’” they explain. “Nothing is off the table due to culture, and no one feels silenced.”
2. Make inclusion your mission.
Having diversity of perspective alone isn’t enough to achieve organizational success. To have truly trusting, high-powered teams, you need to commit to workplace diversity of all kinds—from racial to gender diversity and beyond.
This richness of diversity doesn’t happen on its own, nor can it be achieved by “checking boxes.” Real, lasting diversity starts with inclusion. From inclusive hiring to inclusive career pathing, take the opportunity to elevate and promote your most unique voices.
“Someone’s upbringing is going to influence how they show up and how they trust others,” explains Charkie Quarcoo (she/her), PI’s Program Manager of Change@Work. “That diversity is what brings value [to the business].”
According to HBR, teams with high levels of diversity and psychological safety consistently outperform their peers. These two factors go hand in hand—when you lack at least one, productivity dips. Thankfully, inclusion is your Acela ticket to achieving both.
3. Be accountable to your people.
Words matter. That’s true in any business context, but especially so when the wordsmith is a leader like you. Your decisions hold sway, and you have the power to influence and inspire your people. Own that responsibility, and it can pay dividends for the long-term health of your team.
How exactly do you “own” that responsibility? Make sure you’re accountable. If you say you’ll circle back on a topic at next week’s meeting, follow through on that promise. If your team makes an honest mistake, don’t jump to blame; own the mistake as captain of the ship.
When you show confidence as a leader, you show your people that you’re intentional about the culture you affect. Just as important, you encourage others to contribute to that culture—with trust, accountability, and integrity. Before long, you’ll have an entire crew of leaders at the ready.
4. Schedule a mental health holiday.
Sometimes, the best way to build psychological safety is to give it time—literally.
Together with your HR team, dedicate an annual holiday to mental health. (Employee Appreciation Day and Mental Health Awareness Day are great candidates.) Encourage your employees to take time to rest up, do something fun, and unplug completely from their work.
Research shows that mental health and job performance are positively linked. By investing in mental health, not only do you establish trust and goodwill with employees—you also set them up for long-term success.
A mental health holiday may seem like a small gesture, but it goes an exceptionally long way. Take it from us—this article went live on our own mental health holiday. 🙂
5. Listen to your people.
Even if you follow all of the above, you’ll miss the mark on psychological safety if you don’t practice this crucial step.
Your people’s voices matter. You can say your culture is inclusive of people of all backgrounds, creeds, and ideas, but unless you actually follow through and listen to those ideas, that promise will be just that—a promise. Left unfulfilled, a promise of that ilk will sour like milk.
So, fulfill it. Give your people the microphone, and give them the time and space to speak. Schedule a recurring town hall meeting where people can voice questions (either publicly or anonymously), and answer those questions with candor. The tougher the questions asked, the greater your opportunity to build trust and credibility.
Transparency goes a long way in the path to psychological safety. By hearing your people and meeting their concerns head-on, you show them you’re committed to their wants and needs. Disarm your people with kindness, and that kindness will only multiply.
Psychological safety starts here—with PI.
Psychological safety isn’t the responsibility of a single person or team. It’ll take effort from everyone in your organization to embed that safety within the fabric of your culture.
The Predictive Index’s talent optimization software is designed to make psychological safety actionable and intuitive. Use our four products to deliver on all of the steps above—and so much more:
- PI Hire: Reduce bias and make inclusive hires by leveraging 65+ years of science.
- PI Inspire: Build trust by understanding your people’s natural drives and needs.
- PI Design: Ensure accountability by creating an action plan to accomplish team goals.
- PI Diagnose: Gather candid employee feedback with powerful pulse surveys.
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