Imagine a world in which Google Earth had never been developed — and the ability to digitally search the world was limited to a flat map with streets, rivers, and landmarks. That might still be the reality if Google’s co-founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, had reacted differently to John Hanke’s idea about geospatial searching. Instead, Brin and Page carried it out full-tilt, and now a virtual globe is perusable at our leisure.
Indeed, listening to and encouraging colleagues’ ideas is one company trait that has made Google successful. It’s contributed to a culture of psychological safety, a level of trust that produces more creative and autonomous work environments. Psychological security means being able to speak honestly without worrying about retribution. It’s contributing without fear of self-consciousness or concern that a teammate will steal an idea. And it’s understanding how what you do fits into the organization’s vision and objectives.
Unfortunately, too many companies fail to create psychologically safe workspaces.
Does being innovative feel like taking a fall at your company?
Why Psychological Safety Matters
In a psychologically healthy workplace, employees “feel like they have a voice,” observes David Ballard, the American Psychological Association’s senior director for applied psychology. “They do feel like they’re involved in decisions that affect them on the job. They have sufficient autonomy and control and flexibility in their life that many people didn’t have in the past.”
When workers share a sense of confidence that they’re going to be treated well and not blindsided by hidden agendas, they tend to give more of themselves to their tasks. According to survey research published in the Harvard Business Review, employees at high-trust companies have 106% more energy, 50% higher productivity, and 76% more engagement.
Unfortunately, not all businesses promote psychologically safe, high-trust working environments. As a consequence, those companies miss out on key advantages like natural collaboration, calculated risk-taking, enhanced innovation, reduced internal conflict, and acceptance of vulnerability.
How to Build Psychological Safety
Clearly, it makes sense to foster psychological safety in the workplace. You can start today by adopting a few practices in your office.
1. Make meetings emotionally secure forums.
Have you ever felt as though you couldn’t speak up in meetings for fear of payback or put-downs? You experienced the opposite of psychological security. Chances are strong that you left the conversation without contributing anything of value. Not only did that leave you feeling professionally unfulfilled, but it also hurt your company’s effectiveness by curtailing creativity and insights.
Solving this problem involves tearing down psychological walls and reframing one-on-one and group meetings as positive, dynamic gatherings. David Hassell, co-founder and CEO of performance management software 15Five, believes leaders must take the first step toward making meetings safe zones. “If your employee does not feel safe to be honest, they will say what they think you want to hear. If they roll their eyes upwards and take a few seconds, then they are focusing on their thoughts and not their feelings,” Hassell explains. “Build trust by sharing how you feel first. The more authentic and vulnerable, the better.” Start your meetings by simply telling your reports about why today is a good or bad day for you, and see how they open up in response.
2. Democratize company information.
Secrecy makes a terrific literary vehicle in mystery novels and action films, but it has limited appeal in the workplace. In fact, a lack of openness by business leaders destroys trust. On the flip side, purposeful transparency and openness contribute to psychological safety. Amy Edmonson, the Harvard Business School professor credited with recognizing the concept of psychological safety at work, asserts that leaders should be thoughtfully “transparent about the relevant things,” such as financial results, customer information, and performance metrics. Transparency proves that you trust your employees enough to be honest with them.
To make transparency a constant, communicate even the seemingly mundane details about your company. Employers should share “how the company is doing and how [employees] can make a meaningful contribution,” advises Colum Donahue, CEO and co-founder of Genuity, a technology business management SaaS platform. “Using technology as a tool to keep your company an open book will empower employees, make customers happy, and provide opportunities for your business to grow and improve.” Make operational information available so everyone can work from the same playbook. For instance, you could give personnel access to software that tracks customer service problems and solutions —such as Quick Base or Jira — or a document that highlights salespeople’s progress toward a collective revenue goal.
3. Urge your team to toss out ideas.
Research published in Harvard Business Review found that corporate hierarchies tend to temper innovation. The researchers concluded that hierarchical behavior subtracted from psychological safety, whereas behaviors like curiosity, experimentation, and nurturing added to it. If you, as a manager or executive, have positioned yourself as the main idea person for a long time, you could be hurting your company’s progress. After all, if only a single brain proposes new projects or solutions to problems, the number of novel ideas will be severely limited.
Gallup discovered that only about a third of workers in the United States feel their opinions matter at work. Instead of always being the one giving orders and coming up with answers, ask your colleagues for input. Even if their suggestions aren’t what you want to hear, practice gratitude and thank them for adding their voices. For instance, if an employee mentions that a workflow is unclear or a timeline seems unmanageable, encourage her to share what steps she would take to add clarity or what deadline she would suggest. Be sure to use this feedback to inform your choices, and give each employee credit when his or her ideas engender success.
Unless you want to keep viewing the earth as flat, it’s imperative to enthusiastically support idea generation on your team. Build high levels of trust with your employees to create an atmosphere of psychological safety. The next time you hear, “What if we ….?” be sure to listen.