Psychological safety at work is more important than ever and here’s why
There is probably only one factor that all companies have in common: they rely on people to succeed. And in conclusion, people – both as individuals and as teams – need psychological safety to carry out (perhaps more than ever with distributed and hybrid work environments). A common definition of psychological safety is the belief that you will not be punished or humiliated for expressing ideas, concerns, questions, or for making mistakes. As this article will show, the definition takes on different flavors for different leaders and organizations.
Leading psychologists, consultants and management thinkers have continued to study psychological safety, how to build it and how it has evolved during and after the pandemic.
To understand this better in 2022, Lainie Yallen – a former student of mine who is now Head of Growth at TriplePlay – and I interviewed seven top leaders about their views on psychological safety, the role of relationships in its construction and maintenance, and the strategies they tested in the new world of work. Through their experiences, we identified four key themes that emerged across all organizations.
1. The role of psychological safety in the workplace has been redefined and now has renewed importance
A confluence of historical, social, and economic factors has led to a renaissance in the workforce, redefining the role and importance of psychological safety.
Bhushan Sethi is the global co-leader of PwC’s People & Organization practice, which is one of the world’s leading professional services networks. It set the context in which we exist, work, observe and comment on psychological safety during a renaissance for the workforce.
The role of business has evolved in society. Business is more trustworthy than the government. Its role goes beyond profits and extends to purpose and trust. Stakeholders are arguably more important than shareholders.
Employee confidence has driven more of them to speak up more often. We are witnessing the “big quit” where employees have more work opportunities and less incentive to put up with “bad” conditions. [Note: this is somewhat generational and industry-specific.]
The role of workplace leadership in the lives of employees has changed since the pandemic. Leadership has moved from “How can we present ourselves as caring and compassionate leaders?” to “How do we care about well-being and societal justice?” For the first time, leaders are navigating bringing people back to physical spaces, answering questions about how and when to do it, maintaining inclusive work cultures and allowing remote work while ensuring fairness for their employees.
Psychological safety has different meanings now that we are not always together in physical spaces
The director of human resources for the leading digital employee health benefits platform, The League, Kim Tabac, explains that the culture was practically integrated into their offices. “You could feel the energy when you walked into our downtown Toronto and Chicago offices,” she said. Since transitioning to a hybrid model, Tabac said League has implemented programs to connect employees and reinforce values and culture virtually. They are constantly programming ways to recreate “office energy” in virtual space. We think this is going to be a big challenge for many organizations.
Psychological safety is an essential element of the “S” in the ESG
ESG results are increasingly broad – Leadership matters and companies are accountable for their human capital reports and results, Sethi said.
It is therefore not surprising that the subject has been on the agenda of many CEOs
PSP is one of Canada’s largest retirement investment managers. Its senior vice president, Giulia Cirillo, suggests that psychological safety and culture have always been a high priority, but now that leaders have had to navigate leadership in a “new normal”, many CEOs have added them to their list. program. A ‘silver lining’ of Covid-19 is how leaders have shifted their mindset around the importance of psychological safety and culture – and focused on it.
2. Fostering connection is at the heart of psychologically safe organizations
A second major theme concerns the importance of connection in all directions. According to Tabac, there are three main ways League brings connection to life for its employees:
- Employees connect with each other through employee resource groups, employee interest groups, starting with a buddy, and mentoring programs
- Employees connected to the company’s mission and values
- Link employee performance to organizational performance
Leaders with 1:1 are more important than ever
At the start of the pandemic, when the multinational professional services company’s global employee experience team Accenture undertook extensive ethnographic research through focus groups reaching 1,000 people in a matter of weeks, one of the most highlighted practices that helped people feel safe was “leaders checking and wondering how I’m doing,” according to Stephanie Denino, global employee experience manager at Accenture. She described that the act of top leaders checking in, not just with their direct reports, but those on the other side of their “pyramid,” sends a signal of genuine caring. Psychological safety requires that we deliberately reach for relationships – even more so now in a virtual work world in which it is easy to feel unseen.
Establish and support affinity groups
PSP uses affinity groups to both promote employee connection and advance their diversity goals, Cirillo said. Gender dynamics, LGBTQ+, anti-racism, culture and religion, Indigenous peoples, veterans, people with disabilities, and diversity of thought and perspective.
The combination of digital and physical will play a role in building social connections.
While virtual social networks abounded in the early months of the pandemic, their energy is difficult to sustain indefinitely. While well-intentioned, they fail to replicate the same levels of fun and ease of interaction as in-person gatherings (e.g. how do you leave appropriately? How do you manage to take the take turns without imposing too much formality?), and can sometimes end up feeling like another video meeting.
Accenture used virtual reality to replicate some in-person experiences. The ability to be in a group and to drift off with someone in your own conversation quite naturally, and to join – that kind of fluidity increasingly tries to be replicated and is important for connection.
Other themes we have discerned for understanding psychological safety in the contemporary moment relate to how rewards and recognition shape psychological safetyand how it relies heavily on leadership. Find out more about this information in part 2 of this series, which will be published next week.
[Note: This article focuses primarily on understanding and achieving psychological safety for knowledge workers. Psychological safety for skilled workers is more critical than ever, but was not the topic of these interviews.]
This article is based on interviews conducted with Lainie Yallen, co-contributor to this two-part series.