How communicators can foster a culture of psychological safety

By fostering psychological safety, organizations will see higher levels of engagement, increased motivation to tackle difficult problems, more learning and development opportunities, and solid overall performance.

Employee engagement in the time of COVID-19 has been a complex and challenging matter. In addition to maintaining a consistent, continuous flow of information and supporting the business as usual, internal communications is also needed to meet employees where they were physically and emotionally, utilizing more thoughtful ways to foster inclusion and belonging—well beyond business as usual.

From fluctuating COVID numbers to natural disasters, economic and political pressures, and sudden outbreaks of conflict, many of us around the globe continue to experience uncertainty and adversity today. It is times like this when teams are at their most vulnerable that psychological safety matters the most, because of its power to give employees a sense of normalcy, safety, and comfort when the world around us is in turmoil.

The term psychological safety was coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson. It is about making everyone feel safe to be their true selves, to speak up, to express themselves, and to appear vulnerable in front of others. It is also reinforcing the belief that we can and should share our ideas, questions, and concerns openly, feel heard and know that our unique perspectives and experiences are both welcomed and appreciated.

Effective teams value psychological safety as much as they do physical safety. By fostering such a culture, organizations will see higher levels of engagement, increased motivation to tackle difficult problems, more learning and development opportunities, and solid overall performance. As communicators, we play a critical role in encouraging and supporting a such a culture by thoughtfully considering both how and what we communicate.

In addition to turning up the HEAT—to communicate with humanity, empathy, accountability and transparency; a term coined in the white paper Leading Through Crisis: Communications Lessons and Opportunities—we also need to find meaningful ways to bring the relevant messages around safety, confidence, comfort, and belonging into our communications, and make natural connections to a culture of psychological safety whenever we can at any organization no matter the size, industry, or geography.

Five steps to fostering a culture of psychological safety

  1. Learn: Take time to read, see, and learn more about what psychological safety is, how a culture of psychological safety may be fostered, and what it means to your employees, teams, daily interactions with colleagues, as well as your organization as a whole.
  2. Reflect: Consider your current environment, your employees’ needs, your leaders’ priorities, and your organization’s communications roadmap, and see which events and activities naturally lend themselves to promote more openness, authenticity, and inclusion.
  3. Create: Combine what you have learned and reflected on into meaningful, easy-to-use resources for your people managers and communicators, including key messages, talking points, and conversation starters they can apply with their teams.
  4. Act: Start to softly but purposefully include key messages or references to psychological safety in your regular communications—especially in the less formal, more personal interactions that people managers in your organization have with employees.
  5. Listen: Proactively and regularly seek out feedback from employees, managers, and communicators, then encourage them to share their ideas, questions, and concerns with each other, and help them respond to input from others in an authentic way.

Psychological safety is a significant contributor to fostering a sense of belonging and well-being among employees, and it takes commitment especially from senior leaders to cultivate this type of culture.

At Philip Morris International, the discussion around this topic is shaped by our chief diversity officer, Silke Muenster, who leads our inclusion & diversity team, role modeling and implementing thoughtful tips and tools for employees and managers. Our global internal communications team works closely with them to help create and promote meaningful content, while opening up the dialogue and building broad-based awareness of the topic, destigmatizing it.

For example, Silke has open-door sessions where she hosts unscheduled, informal conversations with anyone interested. She has also launched a new #LetsTalkAboutIt podcast during which she spends 15 minutes twice a month sharing her thoughts on how to tackle challenging conversations and situations, sharing simple techniques to help reset one’s mindset and well-being, as well as discussing inclusion and belonging. In addition, we instituted a well-being survey that is open to all employees. These are just three of many opportunities we are working to create for different voices across different levels to share their perspectives.

By enabling our leaders and their teams to focus on well-being, solidarity, and support, we are all working toward a common goal and becoming part of the solution—clear on what psychological safety means for us, for our daily interactions with colleagues, and for the organization holistically.

Our hope is that these types of measures, done consistently, will lead to measurable, meaningful improvement.

Bessie Kokalis Pescio is the vice president of global internal communications at Philip Morris International 

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