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What is psychological safety in the workplace?

Psychological safety is about feeling safe. Not just being safe physically, but feeling safe emotionally.

You feel safe expressing yourself. You feel safe that you can be open and honest with the people you work with.

It doesn’t mean sharing all your personal life. But for example, if you needed to pick up a sick child from school that you could say that without having to put a whole lot of tiny lies around it.

Why is it important?

In our Brain Potential framework model, one of the things we look at is safety in the workplace.

Feeling protected, cared for and valued optimises learning and enhances a good working environment. Our Brain Potential Workbook, used in our training courses, describes this clearly.

Safety is the foundation, both physically and mentally. Without safety the team are living in fear. How will they be able to perform?

‘What would you know? You don’t know anything.’

‘We’ve done that before. Why would we try it again?’

Little words and phrases like these can really put a person down. You don’t feel confident enough to speak out. And if your voice can’t be heard in the workplace, you shut down. You can feel vulnerable, frightened and unimportant.

Is the concept of psychological safety in the workplace well understood?

One problem is that the minute you introduce words like psychology, psychological, psycho-anything people tend to shut down.

Another is that mental health more generally is not addressed enough in the workplace.

We’ve got physical safety covered. In the 1970s, when the workplace health and safety laws came in, it took a while to make that shift. Now everyone is workplace aware for physical safety. I see people becoming more aware of mental health and psychological issues, but it’s still going to take time.

Can an Employee Assistance Program help?

An Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is a wonderful addition to the workplace, supporting the mental health of employees, but it is not designed to change organisational culture. It’s designed as a bridging service to help a small percentage of employees. That’s not going to change the company culture.

Additionally, in many cases the EAP is simply a way of ticking a box. New employees are told about it at induction, or when the program starts, but what happens after that? Unless there are posters displayed; unless it’s part of an information pack; unless it’s brought up at team meetings, people forget about it.

On the other hand, the EAP will provide a report every 6 or 12 months about service usage. The personal information is confidential, but there will be a breakdown by gender and information about whether issues are workplace or personal. That may give some indication if there are major workplace issues.

But in truth, psychological safety comes from the top down.

It has to be in the culture of the organisation. It’s not in the values written up on the wall – it’s in the way people behave.

What can managers and team leaders do to build psychological safety?

If you’re a manager wanting to build psychological safety in your workplace, think first about yourself.

  • How safe do you feel?
  • Can you, as a middle manager, go to the CEO and have an honest, open conversation?
  • If not, why not?

I’ve worked with managers who are very caring and engaged with a very special team. Often, it’s not because of their performance alone, but also because they feel respected and they feel they can speak out. Managers with more respect and those higher in the hierarchy are better placed to develop a culture of psychological safety.

Creating trust and respect

Everything starts with leaders opening up a space of trust. If, for example, a team member discloses something in a meeting – which may or may not be work related – the team member can trust that it will be kept within those four walls and not ever used against them.

Let’s also consider respect. If you’re an employee and in a meeting with your leader, you don’t want to hear a story about somebody else in the organisation, not to the point where names are disclosed or obvious. Otherwise you worry about what might be said about you.

So for managers, remember it’s enough to say ‘We’ve had similar issues in our workplace over time’. Don’t go into detail and say, ‘There was a time about a month ago when so-and-so experienced the same thing.

It’s these little things which, over time, make your workplace a positive or a negative place to be.