The value of the human part of the workplace equation is shifting more to what employees can contribute, in the widest sense, to innovative and strategic thinking to generate better performance.
This must mean creating the right culture, one where people feel safe and secure and there’s an overwhelming sense of positivity. Right?
It sounds like a cue for the concept of psychological safety. And it is. But before HR departments and business leaders begin formulating approaches to develop the right environment, it’s important to make sure there is a proper grasp of what psychological safety means.
These misunderstandings are understandable, as psychological safety is in some ways a misnomer, with the emphasis on ‘safety’. In addition, its current definition is fundamentally contradictory – how can it be safe to take risks? This inherently means that it’s hard to translate into concrete enablers for businesses to nurture it.
Behave’s recent report on psychological safety, which surveyed more than 200 senior HR leaders, highlights these misunderstandings. Only 16% were clear on what psychological safety really means.
The general perception is that of providing a ‘safe space’ where employees are secure and protected. As such, before HR departments and business leaders begin formulating approaches to develop the right culture, it’s important to make sure there is a genuine grasp of what psychological safety means.
Psychological safety is defined by Behave as “an environment where employees balance comfort and discomfort to take well-calibrated risks.”
Correctly defining psychological safety is not just a question of being pedantic. Armed with a better understanding of the concept, businesses start to see its value and can start to truly measure and nurture it. The study showed that psychological safety was considered important for achieving engagement and productivity (88%), collaboration and teamwork (91%), and retention and attraction (91%), revealing just how important psychological safety can be for leaders wanting to change their organizations.
Navigating the misnomer
With a clear definition in hand, businesses can start thinking of what needs to be done to create the right culture and identify the problems they’ll have to solve.
The recent phenomenon of hybrid work poses an important issue with 32% of respondents saying this is a barrier to maintaining psychological safety within the organization. Some businesses are pushing hard to bring employees back into the office more frequently – for instance Amazon’s latest diktat that employees who do not come in three days a week risk losing out on promotions.
But if we dig deeper, it might not be remote working that hinders productivity but rather a lack of belonging, which psychological safety can help nurture. If employees feel that they belong, then they will be more engaged and collaborate better.
Measurement is also an issue. You can’t measure progress or set goals without a robust framework. But 73% of HR decision-makers said it is challenging to measure psychological safety in their organizations.
The most used methods are observation and feedback, surveys, focus groups, and interviews – and only 17% benchmark against industry metrics. Regular surveying combined with observation works well – but there is a catch, all these measurements must be derived from a solid framework that de-codifies psychological safety into its key pairs of comfort and discomfort.
Another issue is that organizations are not necessarily very good at communicating aspects of their cultures that demonstrate psychological safety. Employees are aware of resources and support systems for fostering psychological safety, but just 32.5% of HR leaders commit to their employees being very aware.
You might find junior staff saying in feedback they are not confident enough to raise a problem, or even fear reprisals. Ways of addressing such issues include training, coaching, and implementing interventions. This will help with establishing a culture where well-calibrated risk-taking and stepping out of the comfort zone can be encouraged and embraced.
But don’t underestimate just how alluring the comfort zone can be both for managers and employees who feel stressed and focused on the short term. Familiarity with tasks and processes is reassuring – it means managers are confident with meeting deadlines and employees feel they are being productive.
But this is a barrier to developing necessary new skills and bringing in fresh perspectives – both vital to prevent stagnation and stimulate business and personal growth.
Supporting leaders to embrace discomfort
In sum, organizations with strong cultures of psychological safety possess three foundational pillars: they have clear organizational values and objectives, structured education and coaching, and strong leadership commitment to the concept.
And speaking of leadership “it’s lonely at the top” is a cliché but also true.
Business leaders are facing wave upon wave of turbulence and an almost perma-crisis as they try to navigate a web of economic, societal, environmental, and political hurdles. Those trying to move the business forward in its development of psychological safety need the support of colleagues as they pivot to embracing discomfort.
Embracing psychological safety will provide a much-needed competitive edge and respondents agree – 80% of them said the principle will be increasingly important in coming years. There’s a huge opportunity to lean into the untapped area of discomfort and reap the benefits of psychological safety.
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Innovation and Strategy Director
Dr Alexandra Dobra-Kiel is Innovation & Strategy Director at Behave and has a proven track record in fusing strategy consulting and behavioural science to help companies be focused, relevant, and resilient.
Prior to Behave, Alexandra worked at Deloitte as the Banking & Capital Markets Insight Lead for the UK, and started her career at Accenture, where she was jointly seconded to Nesta and the Accenture Institute for High Performance.