7 signs of psychological safety in the workplace

Adam Balfour

by Adam Balfour

Psychological safety is an important concept for ethics and compliance, but also key for any organization to operate effectively. Here are seven ways to tell if the levels of psychological safety that your employees feel and experience are low or high:

  1. Disagreement and debate
  • Low psychological safety: disagreement, especially with people in higher up roles, is rarely expressed. There is plenty of disagreement in psychologically unsafe workplaces, but the disagreement is not voiced directly or openly.
  • Higher psychology safety: healthy debate is encouraged. This allows people to challenge ideas openly and directly without feeling personally attacked. Debates can still get heated, but it is the ideas that are being challenged and not the people themselves.
  1. If / how people speak up
  • Low psychological safety: people are either unlikely to speak up or may speak up through tools such as an ethics hotline, but will tend to do so anonymously.
  • Higher psychological safety: in psychologically safe environments, people feel more comfortable openly raising concerns to their manager or others in the organization and may have fewer concerns about speaking up and disclosing their identity (they might still use the ethics hotline and that is their right to do so).
  1. Innovation and mistakes
  • Low psychological safety: people avoid taking risks or voicing creative ideas for fear of how doing so will be treated and perceived. Innovation is incremental at best when people feel it is difficult to advocate for change in how things are done.
  • Higher psychological safety: people feel more comfortable sharing creative ideas, pursuing transformational innovation and are supported when creative and innovative concepts take time and effort to be successful. People who feel psychologically safe will deliver better results over time, but it does not mean they will be successful with every innovative initiative on the first attempt (e.g., edison’s creation of the light bulb was not a success on his first attempt).
  1. Do the smartest people in the room get to speak?
  • Low psychological safety: people either do not speak during meetings when there are other people who are more senior, or they will voice an opinion only once someone who is more senior has voiced a similar opinion.
  • Higher psychological safety: people, regardless of level, feel comfortable sharing their ideas and challenging those of others. Better decisions result from the diversity of thought and dialogue that is shared by the group.
  1. Who speaks and how much?
  • Low psychological safety: people do not speak in equal amounts, but speak relative to their actual or perceived rank in the meeting. Meetings are predictable in terms of who will speak and who will stay silent.
  • Higher psychological safety: one of the key findings from google’s project aristotle was that the best performing teams consisted of people who spoke in roughly equal proportion to each other (if you haven’t heard of project aristotle before, i would suggest you google it). A meeting where everyone actively participates is much more efficient and effective than one where the same number of people attend but the meeting only draws on the ideas and voices of a few people.
  1. Efficiency
  • Low psychological safety: some projects especially big projects – might start out with great expectations but people soon realize the project is not achievable or will not deliver on the expectations. If people feel a lack of psychological safety, stopping or abandoning the project looks like failure this can result in projects that should be stopped continuing because it delays the inevitable feeling of failing.
  • Higher psychological safety: in psychologically safe environments, people are striving for excellence rather than driven by a fear of failure. Striving for excellence doesn’t mean that projects will always work out as hoped or planned, but the group members will recognize this and raise the issue (and likely be appreciated by leadership for doing so). This means that psychologically safe teams are more efficient with organization resources (including money) and time.
  1. How bad news is shared/received?
  • Low psychological safety: bad news will take a long time to get to whoever needs to hear it and the message might be less than direct. By slowing down the sharing of bad news, the opportunity to address a problem while small or addressable is often missed and late news can also have other bad consequences (perhaps other plans could have been made).
  • Higher psychological safety: in psychologically safe environments, bad news is still less fun to deliver than good news: however, it does still get shared faster. More clearly and without fear of being punished for sharing the news. Bad situations can often provide for learning opportunities: psychologically safe environments will work to turn those opportunities for learning into actual learning.

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