We all know that humans have an inherent need to seek psychological safety in their immediate environment. We go to great lengths to get acknowledgement and validation, and simultaneously, to avoid embarrassment or rejection.

At the workplace, we derive our self-worth from how we, and our ideas and thoughts, are received by others. But if the work environment does not offer this right to free and open communication, we pick up behaviours that guarantee our safety, even if that behaviour is detrimental to our growth, the company’s growth, or to workplace culture.

For instance, you learn that it is smarter to not question your temperamental CEO at the townhall. You realise that certain ideas or thoughts are quick to be labelled stupid or laughable by your teammates, and therefore, it’s usually better to fall in line with the overall consensus. You learn that saying ‘yes’ instead of ‘no’ to an unreasonable request from a senior colleague helps avoid unpleasantness. And then one day, when you lead a team, you pass on these attitudes and behaviours to your juniors.

Why does this happen?

Until the early 2000s, which saw the emergence of ‘radical’ concepts like flat organisations and open-door policies, the world was largely used to top-down command-and-control management systems. In these authoritative firms, decision-making was usually centralised and there was little room for suggestions, criticism, or for challenging the status quo.

However, authoritative environments aren’t good for psychological safety. A recent study by McKinsey found that authoritative leadership behaviours negatively impact psychological safety, while consultative and supportive behaviours promote it. This fact becomes even more important for employers in the wake of the pandemic, where workers under sustained stress and anxiety might retreat further into safety-seeking behaviours.

Psychological safety and the critical role of leadership development
While the benefits of psychological safety are well established, a new survey suggests how leaders can create a safer and higher-performance work environment.

When employers enhance psychological safety at work, it has numerous benefits, including:

Turnover and productivity: A few years ago, a Gallup poll found that only 3 in 10 employees strongly agreed that their opinions count at work. By increasing this to 6 in 10 employees, Gallup predicted, organisations could see a 27% decrease in employee turnover and a 12% increase in productivity.

Creativity and problem-solving: When even uncomfortable ideas are welcomed and discussed openly and professionally, people feel empowered to become their true selves. Knowing that ‘no sincere idea is ever stupid’ helps creative thoughts flow more easily, leading to qualitatively better solutions to problems.

Quicker decision making: If people routinely hold back opinions, or if they are not consulted in the first place, decision making can be a long-winded process that hits lots of avoidable roadblocks. But having a consultative approach can reduce this time and make teams, and organisations, more agile – especially in this era of remotely-based teams.

Inclusivity and bonding: When employees know that their ideas will not be seen from the prism of their job title, gender, or background and that they are free to be themselves, they feel empowered, and are also likely to extend the same level of consideration to their colleagues. Collaboration improves and presenteeism (viz., being in office without being fully engaged) drops. Team members feel closer to each other.

Mental wellbeing: As a natural outcome of the factors mentioned above, people feel valued. Having the support of their peers can be a natural confidence and mood-booster, which is good for their mental health and well-being. Such employees are also more likely to become unpaid brand ambassadors for their employers.

So how can organisations begin to foster an environment of psychological safety?

It starts at the top: The McKinsey study affirms that senior leaders need to role model positive leadership behaviours, such as seeking out opinions that differ from their own and by giving everyone respect. When leaders do this, it doesn’t diminish their stature; in fact, being open to contrarian ideas is a leadership trait that employees will respect.

Encourage the right behaviours: Organisations must introspect about the ways in which the existing culture may be (inadvertently) preventing people from speaking up. Such cultural traits must be reversed by encouraging people to share their concerns or questions. Examples of courage should be publicly acknowledged and praised.

Check-in with your colleagues: Conducting regular emotional assessments for your teams will reveal their perceived levels of psychological safety. Doing this can also highlight problem areas that you need to tackle. Measure these scores over a period of time to gauge whether your corrective actions are making employees feel safer or not.

Build champions across the organisation: Leaders and HR managers cannot check in with every employee on a daily basis. Therefore, you need ‘champions’ or trained employees to own the responsibility of improving psychological safety. These champions work with their respective teams to make sure that employees feel secure, supported, and empowered whenever they share ideas or queries that challenge the status quo.

As distributed workforces become the norm in many industries, organisations must realise that authoritative cultures can backfire badly. It’s easy for workers, especially those who work from home, to remain silent and let the status quo continue. But this does not benefit anyone – neither the person, not the organisation. The key to success lies in workplaces that embrace uniqueness and encourage bold and open communication.

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