By Angela Prentner-Smith
PSYCHOLOGICAL safety is an important concept in the workplace. It refers to an individual's perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk-taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive. The benefits of this are a higher-performing workplace, better placed to innovate, reduce risks, produce better work, and make less errors.
At consultancy, training and technology business This is Milk we actively practise what we’re learning as our company culture evolves and we’ve found effective ways of ensuring a psychologically safe space so that our high-functioning teams are the best versions of themselves.
The first step is communication. Explain the concept and the reasons why psychological safety is important. Aim to make psychological safety a part of your company’s DNA and lead by example. Be clear in the message, that psychological safety isn’t about creating a "nice" place to work, it requires vulnerable communication, candid professional debate, and a high degree of tolerance for difference.
It’s professional not personal conflict that we’re actually desiring here. Companies should seek debate, look for alternative views, raise mistakes, and remove power bias and hierarchy in decision-making as much as possible. Hierarchy on its own diminishes psychological safety – keep it to a minimum.
Leadership initiates change. To foster psychological safety, you must be prepared to be open and transparent, own your mistakes and review mistakes to learn from them. In other words, be vulnerable. Demonstrate your commitment and invite upward feedback and highlight shared opportunities to learn and adapt and of course, evaluate your management style. Ask questions such as "does anyone see that differently?", "what could I have done differently?".
Listening generously is also crucial. Focus on what’s actually being said and aim to understand the other person’s point of view. Being open to their perspective demonstrates empathy. Listening actively, generously and feeding back should be an integral part of your company’s communication culture.
A "retro" is a great way to operationalise a feedback culture. Get your team together and ask three simple questions – what worked, what didn’t and what could we do better? Listen to the answers, speak less, listen more and encourage your team to come up with ideas.
Encourage diverse opinions and alternative feedback from across the company. Doing this opens up a supportive space where people feel they can express their opinions safely.
To foster a psychologically safe space, respect is crucial. Simple ways to instil respectful communication include removing blame culture and acknowledging colleagues for their feedback. Recognise and reward their candour and for sharing their opinion. Manage your body language, keeping your body language neutral and open. Embrace a culture of acceptance that sometimes you may have to agree to disagree. Inclusion is predicated on psychological safety – if individuals don’t feel free to be themselves, and speak up, you will never harness the benefits of diversity.