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The link between psychological safety and engagement

September 9, 2019

The link between psychological safety and engagement

By Allison Siminovsky PhD September 9, 2019

It’s no surprise that employee engagement has become a hot topic (see this very blog for numerous examples). There’s a heavy focus on the outcomes of an engaged workforce—such as retention and productivity—and the positive consequences that can come along with conducting an employee experience survey. But there’s not as much focus on what the precursors for engagement are. 

Psychological safety is a well-established concept that can help to explain why your employees may or may not be engaged. In this blog post, you’ll learn what psychological safety is and how it can play a role in engaging your workforce. You’ll also discover practical ways to promote psychological safety in your workplace. 

Author’s note: Much of this research comes from William A. Kahn’s seminal 1990 article on psychological safety in the workplace, in which he conducted two field-based qualitative studies.

What is psychological safety, and why is it good?

Psychological safety is the extent to which employees feel they can take interpersonal risks and express themselves in the workplace without fear of repercussions. Employees with high levels of psychological safety tend to speak up, share their opinions, and bring their whole selves to work. Those with low levels of psychological safety tend to feel the need to “defend” their true selves and may keep their opinions to themselves. When people feel safe at work, they don’t need to spend as much of their time focusing on themselves and can move into a team-first mindset. Psychological safety is related to a number of workplace outcomes, including innovation, knowledge sharing, divergent thinking, and even firm-level success.

To sum up, psychological safety is clearly a good thing—and workplaces should strive to ensure that employees feel safe at work. Employees might be more inclined to share their ideas, engage in constructive conflict, and generally feel comfortable when psychological safety is perceived. 

psychological safety and employee engagement

How is psychological safety related to engagement?

Psychological safety also has clear links to employee engagement. Kahn defined personal engagement as the extent to which people bring themselves not just to the office, but to their roles, specifically. Therefore, truly engaged employees aren’t just fun to be around and happy to help out in extra-role tasks, but they bring themselves into every facet of their jobs. According to Kahn, they keep their minds “in the game.” When employees are disengaged, they might not put much effort into their work and can seem “burned out” or even robotic in their actions. 

In Kahn’s observational studies, he found (dis)engagement and psychological safety to be related in several key areas: relationships, management style, and organizational norms.

Relationships

Throughout Kahn’s interviews and observations, he found that psychological safety was an outcome of supportive relationships that promoted experimentation. This means people were allowed to try to perform work tasks in different ways—or even socialize in different ways—without negative consequences. Accordingly, trust is a crucial factor in relationships that promote psychological safety. Namely, it’s important to create a predictable environment within relationships, where one participant generally knows what to expect from the other.

Management style

It’s worth noting that Kahn found relationships amongst different levels of the organizational hierarchy to be less safe than those conducted at the same level. Although not surprising, it’s certainly something for supervisors to be aware of. Employees may feel less safe in manager-subordinate relationships purely as a result of the hierarchical nature of these relationships, so it’s worth creating a trusting and supportive environment. 

Employees also feel safer in resilient relationships with their managers that can bounce back from hardships or mistakes—employees want to be able to work free from the fear that a mistake can cost them. 

Finally, employees want to feel ownership over their own work and feel they have the latitude to make decisions as they relate to day-to-day activities—so micromanagers, beware! You might be inhibiting your employees’ engagement.

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Organizational norms

Higher levels of psychological safety result in employees feeling safer in taking risks and expressing themselves at work. This may give some pause, as surely there should be a limit in just how far people can go about expressing themselves while maintaining professionalism. Kahn actually found that those with higher psychological safety tended to operate more closely within organizational and role norms than those lower in psychological safety—and therefore engagement.

Let your employees bring their whole self to work.

Psychological safety, just like engagement, is clearly an important organizational concept that deserves its moment in the spotlight. If employees live in fear of embarrassing themselves or being reprimanded for trying out new things at work, it’s only natural they won’t feel as engaged as they would otherwise. 

Many organizations preach the importance of bringing one’s whole self to work—but few actually practice it. It’s time to sit down and consider what psychological safety looks like in your organization and whether it’s time to really let employees be their best, engaged selves at work.

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