Psychological Safety - A Necessity In The 21st-Century Workplace

Psychological safety is one of the essential components of a 21st-century workplace, but this is often misunderstood. As we continue to experience the 4th industrial revolution, which creates an even greater need for adapting, learning, and reskilling, we must be more conscious about psychological safety at the workplace.

What is Workplace Psychological Safety?

It is a job environment where employees feel safe to voice their concerns, asking questions, admit mistakes, and request help.

Is it Common for Employees to Withhold Opinions and Concerns?

It is far more common than we think. If the climate does not actively seek out opinions or motivate individuals to speak out, most employees will feel safe by remaining silent. It is understandable for people not to share criticisms, failures, and other negative information. Often individuals hold back improvement ideas as well if they believe their ideas would not be welcome. Thus the organization misses out on creative ideas that could improve the work model or fix existing issues. This work culture of better safe than sorry has been prevalent for centuries. Now it is up to leaders to buck the trend.

Does it Hurt Organizations When Employees Hold Back Opinions?

Very much so. We do not have to look farther than the Wells Fargo situation that transpired recently. When a company strategy of cross-selling products to existing customers failed, salespeople did not have the confidence to share the news with senior leadership. They believed the facts would upset their leadership and resorted to creating false accounts that masked the strategy failure temporarily. Of course, the cat eventually got out of the bag. This type of behavior represents a culture where openness is unwelcome. Thus the salespeople found it easier to engage in fraud rather than be the bearer of bad news. Such a system is destined to fail in the long run as nothing can hurt an organization more than the combination of unrealistic sales targets and apathy for negative information.

How Can Leaders Turn the Tide?

Most leaders believe in sharing the news of success and celebration on a grand scale across the organization. But it is paramount to share the shortcomings, challenges, and failures with similar regularity and vigor as well. The message that employees' opinions are valued and sought after must reach the workforce. It cannot be achieved with a single email once a year.
Instead, leaders must organize regular 'townhalls' where everyone is allowed to speak up. Leadership must communicate periodically with their workforce motivating them to share what's on their minds. Accepting the challenges and sharing the shortcomings the organization is facing shows humbleness and vulnerability on the part of the leadership. Under such a climate, employees feel more confident in voicing their concerns.

What Benefits Can an Organization Derive from Such a Work Climate?

  • Better Collaboration: Collaboration at the workplace is more important than ever under the 4th industrial revolution. Essentially, each task completed by an employee today becomes part of a larger team goal. If employees are not sharing their ideas and knowledge openly, it hurts them and hurts the collaboration effort. Leaders and HR teams need to motivate and engage employees to a level where they are self-confident, which can bring about far better collaboration and teamwork.
  • Better Engagement: With an open workplace, employees start to buy into the company mission. Once they do that, they value themselves as part of the organization rather than an expendable wage worker. As the workforce holds critical need-to-know knowledge of tasks at the micro-level, their contribution is invaluable to innovation, learning, knowledge sharing, and company success.
  • Higher Creativity: Creative thinking and innovation are products of a psychologically safe environment. Innovative ideas may bring about failures as well. If employees are always worried about short-term failures while innovating, their creative neurons are shutdown. In a psychologically safe work, climate employees stay more engaged, perform better, and innovate more. Such innovations can drive an organization to the forefront of its industry, but leaders and HR teams must share the responsibility to create such an environment.
  • Encourages Progress: It is a scientific fact that fear takes away our ability to be creative. When our brains are stimulated to be in the fight or flight scenario, they seek out the most natural way out to save ourselves; in this case, save our image in front of others. This lack of openness impedes growth. By allowing employees to be creative, expressive, and unafraid, they can tap into the parts of the brain from where ideas can flow and help themselves and the organization thrive.

How Can We Improve Psychological Safety?

There are three ways in which organizations can improve psychological safety

  1. Curiosity and Compassion: When handling employee matters, leaders must be curious rather than judgmental. If an employee seems to respond to high-pressure work environments with a negative attitude, they should probe further to understand his problems rather than making decisions without consultation. Sometimes recognition of work well done, and a display of empathy can work wonders. Leading with phrases such as "tell me more" or "I understand where you are coming from" should be in every leader's repertoire.
  2. Awareness of Strengths and Weaknesses: Having a solid understanding of individuals' strengths and weaknesses is critical in guiding them in the right direction. This is especially important while ascertaining the capabilities of emerging leaders. Often a clear picture may not be painted by the feedback of their colleagues. But using assessments, and employing consultants and coaches, helps provide a person with insights and a safe environment to understand crucial behavioral issues. Once the information is available, the person can be coached to mitigate their weaknesses so that he can become a better team member and a valued member of the workforce. Strength finder, personality, and 360 assessments are useful tools to surface topics for discussion and valuable points of view. Coaching leaders, managers, and employees to understand their colleagues is an essential step to leveraging strengths and mitigating weaknesses.
  3. Improve Interpersonal Connection: Organizations must provide time and effort to improve the interpersonal connection between employees. Out-of-office events, excursions, and games can promote employee bonding it planned correctly. Managers must also share their responsibility by learning how to handle a team well. Managers who focus on employee strengths are better able to create a motivated and engaged workforce. On the other hand, managers who focus only on the weaknesses or ignores them entirely creates a demotivated stifling workplace. When employees are valued, appreciated, and respected, they are more likely to collaborate with others and create successful interpersonal connections and thereby, success.
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