What is a psychologically safe workplace?

A comfortable work environment is the top predictor of business success. Penny Whitelock explains why it’s critical for employees to feel secure

Psychological safety is about creating an environment in which people feel respected, accepted and comfortable to be themselves. The opposite to this is an environment where, for example, a junior member of the team speaks and is ignored or spoken over; where they are criticised for the opinion they share and where they feel that any errors they make will stay with them forever.

In a psychologically safe environment, people will suggest ideas and be more innovative. They will ask questions and feel more able to voice that they disagree or don’t understand. In April 2016, Google announced feedback from its four-year study on team performance, and found that psychological safety was the number one predictor of success.

Developing this starts at the top – how the leadership team responds to events will influence how safe others feel to respond.

In 2008 I was in my eighth year as managing director at a well-known company. The leadership team above me were very talented at making people feel valued, and comfortable – but with a change of ownership this disappeared.

One day, I opened an email from my new boss that had been sent to a large group of recipients, including my peers, seniors and juniors. The email stated that I had made two spelling mistakes in my board report and asked if someone could sort it out.

In that moment, I knew the regime had changed. Humiliation, blame and bullying became the order of the day. Going to work lost its sparkle and became something to fear. I became a leader that I really didn’t recognise.

When I came out the other side, I took a long look at my leadership style and realised that I needed to create an environment where people could be more open, understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and offer support rather than look for opportunities to catch each other out. The way to do this was through disclosure and feedback.

The skill I recommend all leadership teams develop is understanding other people’s points of view – if a nervous junior member of staff discloses something to you and you interpret it the wrong way, there is immediately a risk that the wrong judgement will be made.

Learning to ask questions to understand the thinking behind answers is very powerful. If there is one dominant leader, then the rest of the team may struggle. The company needs to recognise the negative potential of the alpha male/female.

To really improve the workplace, anyone who leads others needs to be ready to listen, ask questions, share and recognise that fallibility can be a strength. A psychologically safe workplace will support any work that you are doing around wellbeing, and change the image and reputation of your company for the better.

Penny Whitelock is director of Crystal Clear Business Solutions