Creating a psychologically safe workplace 

When people perceive their work environment as a safe place, they feel more confident and are more likely to engage in interpersonal risk-taking behaviours that drive organizational innovation. This includes speaking up, asking questions, voicing unspoken concerns, and engaging in respectful disagreement.

Leaders who want to create a work environment that sparks innovation, minimises turnover, has high productivity levels, need to create psychologically safe work environments. To better understand this, let’s explore the opposite of a psychologically safe workplace. It was often thought that leading with an iron fist got the best results. In these environments fear was used as the main driver; the fear of not being productive enough, the fear of making a mistake or failing. 

But neuroscience research indicates that fear diverts cognitive resources from the brain regions responsible for working memory and processing new information. This diversion hampers analytical thinking, creative insight, and problem-solving abilities. Interpersonal fear specifically reduces learning behaviours, such as information sharing, asking for help, discussing mistakes, and experimenting. In essence, people cannot perform at their best when they are afraid. 

So how do you know if people feel a sense of psychological safety in your workplace? According to the thought leader on this topic, Harvard professor Amy Edmonston, you can ask them these questions to give you an indication on how you rate (encouraging them in a way to get truthful answers); 

  1. If you make a mistake on this team, it is not held against you.
  2. Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
  3. People on this team sometimes accept others for being different.
  4. It is safe to take a risk on this team.
  5. It isn’t difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
  6. No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
  7. Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilised.

Create a fearless workplace for best results 

Here are three important ways you can create a fearless workplace with high performing teams; 

1. Frame the situation correctly

Edmondson defines framing as the way in which a leader can set the stage to create the right conditions for psychological safety necessary for peak performance. “Whenever you are trying to get people on the same page, with common goals and a shared appreciation for what they’re up against, you’re setting the stage for psychological safety. The most important skill to master is that of framing the work”. 

In her research into the implementation of a new innovative procedure across 16 different hospitals, Edmondson discovered that the single most important factor that determined success or failure was how leaders framed the new initiative. “The difference between success and failure was not determined by management support, resources, project leader status, or expertise. Surprisingly, the difference wasn’t determined even by whether the hospital was academic, or by its prior history of innovation. Instead, differences in how the project was framed by each project leader gave rise to different attitudes about the technology and the need for teamwork”.

2. Admit your own fallibility 

This is as simple as saying to your team, look I’m human, I’m going to stuff up at some stage so please let me know when i do. Make sure you create an environment where people can come to you with feedback. Edmondson has a lot of interesting content on the dual nature of mistakes—those that lead to significant successes and those that require a more thoughtful approach to growth and learning. When you make a mistake, it’s important to learn the art of being able to reframe them as opportunities for growth, exploration, and innovation. Modelling your own shortcomings to those you manage or lead, make it OK for them to also make mistakes and readily admit them. We are all learners and encouraging a culture where mistakes are welcomed and can be opportunities for growth is essential. 

3. Model curiosity 

Often when a new leader comes into an organisation they lead from a position of knowing. They will replicate what they learned and did at their previous employer. The problem with this approach is that it does not foster curiosity and bring out the best in others. If instead you have a leader who facilitates, who leads from a place of not knowing, their focus is to lead from a position of curiosity. “Let’s find out”, “I don’t have the answers but let’s see together if we can find out”. Leaders who create the space to have the conversations that need to be had are much more effective at creating a high performing culture where people feel safe to express their thoughts and ideas.

The key to a high performing engaged team is to create a workplace that is fearless, where people feel safe to express themselves and make mistakes.  If your leadership team could do with my help in 2024, please get in touch today, I’d love to hear from you.

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