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Achieving Psychological Safety in The Workplace

11 July 2024

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Gina Battye CEO and Founder, Psychological Safety Institute

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Gina Battye, author, speaker, CEO and Founder of the Psychological Safety Institute discusses the truths of psychological safety in workplaces.

There exists a pervasive misconception about Psychological Safety that oversimplifies its significance and complexity, thereby limiting its impact and contributing to unsafe workplaces. This misconception often reduces Psychological Safety to merely encouraging a Speak Up culture. However, the reality is far more nuanced and profound.

By dismantling these myths, we not only deepen our understanding of Psychological Safety but also pave the way for creating workplaces where every individual can thrive.

The Misleading Narrative of “Speak Up”

Misconception 1: “Psychological safety revolves around the fear of speaking up or making mistakes.”

The narrative that psychological safety is solely about creating a Speak Up culture is dangerously misleading. While a Speak Up culture encourages individuals to admit mistakes, give feedback, take risks, voice their opinions and be their Authentic Self without fear of repercussions, this narrow focus oversimplifies and undermines the broader and deeper aspects of psychological safety.

Psychological safety transcends mere Speak Up cultures and interpersonal risk-taking. It represents an individual’s subjective experience of safety, comfort and confidence across various contexts – whether in physical spaces, environments, situations or interactions with others.

Integrating diverse cognitive, emotional and behavioral dimensions, it encompasses emotional and mental well-being, emotional responses, thought processes and behaviour patterns. Its universal relevance impacts every individual and significantly shapes daily life, particularly within workplaces, where it plays a crucial role in creating environments where both individuals and teams can truly thrive.

Psychological safety is a multi-dimensional facet of workplace culture that is often underestimated but holds profound importance for promoting genuine engagement, belonging, innovation and organisational success.

It’s crucial to address the misconception that psychological safety revolves exclusively around promoting a Speak Up culture. While encouraging open communication is important, focusing solely on these actions without ensuring a genuinely safe environment can be counterproductive and exacerbate existing issues, leading to even more unsafe workplaces.

Why “Speak Up” is Creating Unsafe Workplaces

Encouraging a “Speak Up” culture without first establishing a genuinely safe environment is akin to addressing only the surface of psychological safety. Many organisations rely on tools like anonymous reporting systems or focus on abstract concepts such as building trust or respect. While these efforts are well-intentioned, they alone are inadequate and fail to ensure real safety.

Asking employees to voice their concerns in an unsafe, negative or toxic environment undermines their ability to do so effectively. Without a sense of safety, individuals are reluctant to speak up, rendering any encouragement ineffective.

Creating a psychologically safe environment is paramount. Without laying this groundwork, promoting a Speak Up culture sets people up to fail, exacerbating an already unsafe workplace.

It’s crucial to dispel this misleading narrative, as it perpetuates issues within organisations.

Unrealistic Assumptions About Skills and Readiness

By asking people to speak up, organisations assume that employees already possess the necessary skills for effective communication and feedback, such as intrapersonal awareness, interpersonal and communication skills, an understanding of team dynamics, a safe space to express themselves and the necessary feedback skills.

However, most people don’t naturally possess these skills. Expecting employees to speak up without providing the necessary resources, training or a safe space to practice these skills is not only unrealistic but also unfair.

Organisations must establish the foundational elements that employees need: the confidence and safety for employees to bring their Authentic Self to work, effective communication skills to speak up confidently and safely, a safe space for healthy dialogue and conflict resolution skills for addressing issues.

Without these foundational elements, organisations set people up to fail, thereby exacerbating an already unsafe work environment.

You cannot bypass these essentials. If you cultivate a psychologically safe and healthy culture, people will naturally speak up. Forcing it without laying the groundwork will only lead to failure.

Narrow Definitions and Their Consequences

Focusing exclusively on promoting a Speak Up culture oversimplifies and fails to recognise the broader significance of healthy workplace cultures and psychological safety within organisations, thereby limiting the rollout of effective psychological safety interventions.

When organisations narrowly define psychological safety as merely encouraging people to speak up, they overlook its profound implications for workplace culture, innovation, engagement and overall organisational success. This limited perspective often leads to psychological safety not receiving the prioritisation it deserves.

In reality, psychological safety encompasses much more; it includes intrapersonal awareness, developing interpersonal and communication skills, understanding team dynamics, creating safe and inclusive spaces, promoting collaboration, innovation and creativity. It involves creating an environment where individuals and teams can thrive, feel valued and are empowered to contribute effectively.

Embracing a comprehensive understanding of psychological safety is crucial for organisations to cultivate resilience, unleash creativity and achieve sustainable growth.

Misconception 2: “Psychological safety and inclusion are intrinsically linked.”

There’s a misconception that psychological safety and inclusion always go hand in hand, stemming from a misunderstanding about what psychological safety truly entails. But let’s challenge that assumption. It’s entirely possible for someone to feel psychologically safe, without feeling fully integrated into their team. But can inclusion truly exist without a foundation of psychological safety?

For instance, imagine an employee who feels comfortable sharing their ideas and communicates well but often finds their contributions overlooked. They might also feel excluded from social gatherings outside work. This situation shows that while they feel safe expressing themselves, they don’t feel completely included in the team dynamics.

Conversely, consider another scenario where an employee is invited to team activities and feels valued, yet they perceive the workplace as competitive and judgmental. They hesitate to voice their opinions openly or from being their Authentic Self due to fear of negative consequences.

True inclusion goes beyond mere participation. It involves feeling a deep sense of belonging and acceptance within the team or organisation. Without psychological safety, individuals may hold back from fully engaging, which undermines their sense of genuine inclusion. Inclusion alone doesn’t ensure psychological safety.

To create a truly inclusive workplace, it is essential to recognise that psychological safety forms the bedrock. It empowers individuals to confidently express their Authentic Self, cultivating a culture where diversity, equity and inclusion thrive naturally.

Often, organisations prioritise inclusion efforts without addressing psychological safety, which undermines their ability to cultivate a genuinely inclusive culture. By prioritising psychological safety from the outset, we create an environment where everyone can thrive.

By perpetuating these two misconceptions, workplaces inadvertently stifle individual potential and hinder organisational growth. Addressing these misunderstandings is paramount in cultivating environments where every voice is valued and every person feels empowered to contribute fully.

Embracing a comprehensive understanding of psychological safety not only enhances workplace culture, innovation and engagement but also ensures sustainable organisational success.

Psychological safety is the foundation upon which inclusive, resilient and thriving organisations are built.

The Authentic Organization: How to Create a Psychologically Safe Workplace, by Gina Battye – published by Wiley, June 2024, is available wherever books and eBooks are sold.

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