How psychological safety affects employee productivity

Fear isn’t helping your organization thrive.

Smiling business persons stacking hands over the table

Leading with fear no longer works. As more organizations discover that employees expect empathy from leadership, stoking worry or concerns for employees around their job productivity and shifting expectations is now understood to hinder success across the board. Organizations that assess their levels of psychological safety, then look at ways of improving upon it across teams and departments, can create an environment where employees feel more engaged and productive.

For those new to the concept, fostering psychological safety means creating an environment where individuals feel they can take chances without fear of retaliation. It means creating a culture where people can be their best selves and work to their fullest potential — without being punished for things like making a mistake, challenging the status quo or offering feedback.

“When employees feel comfortable asking for help, sharing suggestions informally, or challenging the status quo without fear of negative social consequences, organizations are more likely to innovate quickly, unlock the benefits of diversity, and adapt well to change — all capabilities that have only grown in importance during the COVID-19 crisis,” according to a report from McKinsey & Company. The company offers this conclusion from a global survey it conducted during the pandemic. The bad news, McKinsey points out from its research, is that only a handful of business leaders demonstrate these positive behaviors on a consistent basis.

So why is this so important? In a fast-paced business world threatened by ceaseless global conflict and crises, creating this environment at work is necessary to foster adaptive, innovative performance at all levels, from the individual up to the organization as a whole.

This concept is not new. Nearly a decade ago, Google conducted Project Aristotle, which studied 180 of its own teams to understand the factors of high-performing groups. They looked at group dynamics, tenure, locations, skill sets and personality traits. And the number one factor by far that made teams more successful than other teams was the level of psychological safety.

Last year, Harvard Business Review conducted a study of 62 drug development teams at six large pharmaceutical firms with varying degrees of diversity. The study found teams that were diverse and psychologically safe outperformed the diverse teams that lacked that psychological safety. Additionally, it found that “On average, people were less happy with their team, the more diverse it was. But for the subset of teams with high levels of psychological safety, the more diverse the teams, the more satisfied their members were.”

Research in recent years from Gartner, Gallup and Harvard Business Review found that the benefits of a high work psychological safety include: 27% reduction in turnover; 76% more engagement; 50% more productivity; 74% less stress; 29% more life satisfaction; 57% workers more likely to collaborate; 26% greater skills preparedness since workers learn at a faster rate when they feel psychologically safe; 67% higher probability that workers will apply a newly learned skill on the job. With those kinds of numbers, it’s a wonder why any organization would consider ignoring their psychological safety levels in the workplace.

Identifying behaviors and results

In a recent webinar on the topic of psychological safety, Kelly Newman, executive coach at BlueEQ, outlined the good and bad workplace behaviors that affect psychological safety. For instance, the bad behaviors creating a low sense of psychological safety include leaders and managers being arrogant, showing favoritism, micromanaging, giving inconsistent direction, bullying, expressing negative attitudes, being manipulative, inflexible and being generally unsupportive.

When individuals operate within a low psychological safety team or department, the effects have negative impact on the business. These include high turnover, silence from individuals, risk aversion, burnout, low engagement, lack of innovation, low accountability, less feedback and self-censoring.

“What if we could intentionally exercise our emotional intelligence and strive to create a much safer environment?” Newman asked. “Get rid of the hierarchal authority, the fear-based leadership so prevalent 20 to 30 years ago. With that gone [companies] just started seeing things like much greater innovation and much more agility and collaboration.”

On the other end of the spectrum, organizations fostering teams and departments to have high psychological safety can see greater innovation, low turnover, high engagement, creativity, agility, collaboration, individual accountability, more feedback and a culture where employees speak up.

To create a higher psychological safety, leaders and managers should be approachable, open-minded, empowering, supportive, trusting, collaborative, inclusive and consistent.

Improving your psychological safety

There are several things that organizations can do to improve their psychological safety in the workplace. For starters, encouraging open communications and soliciting feedback on a regular basis fosters a sense of belonging for all employees that values DE&I while. By consistently keeping the channels for conversation open you send a signal to employees that they can be themselves, and that they are welcome to express their thoughts and ideas without the fear of negative consequences.

Build trust with employees through transparent communications, letting them know financial information about the organization and explaining business decisions whenever you are able. Equip managers with the tactics and soft skills to provide support for those struggling with work-related or personal issues, and remind them to recognize and reward positive behavior — because who doesn’t like to celebrate from time to time? Encourage every leader to encourage self-care, which has been very top of mind since the pandemic came along. Communicators can reinforce a culture of self-care among employees by offering events and resources to maintain a healthy work/life balance.

Leadership should lead by example, modeling behavior they’d like to see in others and be open to constructive criticism. They shouldn’t be afraid to show their vulnerable side, openly admit when they make a mistake or bad decision and own up to it while also showing empathy towards team members. Make sure leaders understand they should prioritize psychological safety and hold them accountable if they don’t.

Finally, communicators should partner with HR to create learning opportunities that help employees develop their skills and pursue their career passions to continue growing. This requires leaders to establish clear expectations and policies that are applied consistently across all situations, no matter the employee.

To understand where your psychological safety levels are currently at in the workplace is a simple matter of surveying your workforce. Put together a brief survey asking them to rate their thoughts on a scale of 1-5 and answer a  series of brief questions , which I slide: “I feel safe to take risks in the workplace,” “I find it difficult to ask colleagues for help,” “My unique skills and talents are valued and utilized at this organization,” and “Mistakes are often held against me.”

Begin by surveying employees with a focus on the organization to get a sense of any widespread cultural issues, and then follow up with a survey focused on the team or department to understand what managers are successful in creating psychologicaly safe teams.

By fostering psychological safety in the workplace, organizations put themselves in a better position to pivot to the ever-changing business world and help avoid a lot of the pitfalls that hold organizations back.

Jon Minnick is a conference producer, awards event producer and workplace wellness writer. He’s excited for spring to arrive. 

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