It’s a globalised and disrupted corporate ecosystem out there, and business leaders have to search for new opportunities for innovation and improvement constantly. 

Doing this requires the ability to foster top-notch collaboration within their team, something which first and foremost requires the creation of a psychologically safe team environment.

Psychological safety happens when team members believe it’s safe to speak up so that they can take risks and be vulnerable without fear of facing reprisals or insults. Characterised by mutual respect and trust, psychologically safe teams engage in discussions that others avoid, and readily participate in the creative risk-taking that’s necessary for businesses to thrive within the modern knowledge economy.

When psychological safety is lacking, problems go unnoticed

The importance of psychological safety may be most noticeable in occupational safety contexts, where it is a key component of overall workplace safety. 

Previously, many high-risk workplaces like construction sites had “zero incident” safety targets. However, these goals became less popular after OHS professionals recognised that “Target Zero” policies actually increase workplace risk by reducing psychological safety. It turns out workers don’t want to be held responsible for causing their firm to fail to meet its targets:  

“I don’t tell, and my life is simpler… I don’t have to do the work that it takes, and I don’t have to put up with this negative reaction.”

Psychological safety affects every aspect of how employees discuss, collaborate, challenge, and support each other. In psychologically safe workplaces, workers feel comfortable reporting problems so they can be addressed quickly. The strategies listed below provide a broad framework for creating such an environment, and in doing so, for creating more innovative and productive teams. 

Strategy 1—Set the stage

Team members who aren’t sure if they’re putting the right foot forward are less likely to bother trying. Team leaders should set clear expectations at the start of each project by establishing its most important variables, including how much uncertainty and complexity it involves. By creating a shared understanding of the project, team members will have a shared basis for collaboration and understand their role as a stakeholder in the project’s success.

The more complex and uncertain a project is, the more important it is for leaders to take charge of creating a psychologically safe team. Projects which involve high levels of uncertainty reduce team members’ ability to speak confidently about the project. 

To maintain creative productivity in this environment, individuals must feel that it’s safe to share ideas they don’t necessarily feel confident about. 

Strategy 2 — Turn safe moments into safe cultures

A culture of psychological safety can’t simply be created by telling your team to feel safe. Psychologically safe workplace cultures are the product of many individual experiences. 

Normalising psychological safety means making sure that team members consistently feel listened to until they come to expect that it’s safe to take interpersonal risks.

This doesn’t mean treating employees with kid gloves, but it does mean showing curiosity for their perspective and demonstrating empathy for their stressors. Psychological safety is fragile and can be disrupted easily if your team feels their concerns are dismissed. In psychologically safe cultures, employees buy into psychological safety as an important value and perpetuate it by treating each other with the same consideration they’ve come to expect from you.

Strategy 3 - Seek improvement instead of laying blame

Laying blame and criticism within a team will escalate conflicts and cause team members to disengage. Instead of simply correcting a team member’s mistake, ask them about the problem, and make it a collaborative effort to find the solution. 

Not only will this provide the team member with a positive learning experience that improves their sense of psychological safety, but it may also produce unexpected insights into the situation that you didn’t notice at first glance.

Strategy 4 - Admit your own mistakes

When leaders demonstrate humility and acknowledge their mistakes, it increases trust within their team. Acknowledging mistakes and imperfections provides employees with an example of positive risk-taking behaviour, and emphasises that improvement is more important than perfection. This promotes the image of a psychologically safe environment in which team members will be more likely to admit their errors and ask for help.

Workplace safety attitudes are often divided into “safety culture” and “safety climate”, the latter of which refers to workers’ beliefs about the importance that their employer places on safety. By showing your own flaws, you’ll improve the psychological safety climate by demonstrating that you truly value an open, vulnerable, and risk-tolerant approach to communication.

Strategy 5 – Track psychological safety in the workplace

Interpersonal relationships are not static - the level of psychological safety within a team is affected by how relationships between team members evolve and change. By conducting employee surveys at regular intervals (e.g., annually), you can make sure that you’re continuing to maintain a safe environment.

You can also track your short-term progress on psychological safety by asking employees, or colleagues (peer review), for feedback on your delivery when offering suggestions or critiques. Not only will this allow you to see how you’re doing in fostering a safe environment, but it will also demonstrate the sort of openness to improvement that encourages the type of interpersonal risk-taking that psychological safety is meant to foster. 

Creating psychological safety is a key management competency

Practising psychological safety is a requirement for any leader looking to drive continuous improvement and innovation in the workplace. Many modern team management methodologies, such as lean-agile, require psychological safety as a prerequisite. Safe workplaces also benefit from reduced absenteeism and churn, further enhancing their competitive advantage.

Deakin University’s online Master of Leadership program provides students with a full exploration of the principles and practices that separate “managers” from leaders. Because the curriculum combines theory-based learning with real-world practice, students can immediately apply their learning to their career. 

You’ll graduate with a qualification that recognises your leadership strengths, and you’ll be confident in your ability to lead your team to success within today’s turbulent business environment.

To discover why Deakin is ranked as one of Australia’s top universities for student satisfaction and to find out more about what our online postgraduate courses have to offer, contact us on 1300 034 524.