At long last, psychological safety is getting the attention it deserves, with even the U.S. surgeon general emphasizing its importance to workplace mental health and well-being. While many of us are familiar with the term — it means people feel free to speak up, challenge others’ ideas, take risks, and admit mistakes without fear of repercussions — we may struggle to envision what it actually looks like in the workplace.
To start, it’s critical to understand that psychological safety isn’t always about feeling comfortable; it’s about embracing discomfort and feeling supported when taking risks. Here are three workplace scenarios that illustrate how psychological safety — or lack thereof — can make or break an organization:
Safe to speak up
Sam, a graphic designer, struggles with speaking up in team meetings. He’s not the best at articulating his thoughts on the fly, especially in a group setting. The few times he’s tried, his manager has mostly ignored his attempts while applauding the ideas of his more vocal colleagues. Lately, he feels safer just staying quiet and not contributing much to group discussions.
At a team meeting, Sam’s manager unveils a new homepage for the company website. While everyone else “oohs” and “aahs,” Sam can’t help but feel distracted by the palette of bold, bright colors and the intricate, interactive graphics — so much so that he can barely focus on reading the text. But since his co-workers are buzzing about how cool and modern it looks, he thinks he must be the only one with concerns, and he’s not sure how to voice them so that his manager would pay attention, anyway. So he stays quiet.
After the launch of the new website, Sam’s manager receives an analytics report. He can’t understand why the average time spent on the homepage is so much shorter than for the older version — this design was meant to draw people in and keep them engaged, so why does it seem like people can’t wait to click away?
A climate where everyone feels safe to speak up would have helped Sam share his valuable perspective. His manager could’ve recognized Sam’s past reticence, and instead of asking people to speak up about the new website, he could have asked them to write their feedback. And when Sam did venture to speak up at meetings, his manager could have asked him clarifying questions rather than dismissing his ideas in favor of those better articulated by his colleagues.
Safe to challenge
A team of product developers is racing to finish the latest version of a mobile app. They’ve gotten wind that a competitor is releasing a similar product, and faced with declining revenues, they’re under a lot of pressure to push out a sleek update — or face a round of layoffs.
But a day before the product debut, several of the app developers find a security flaw that could cause customer information to be compromised. They huddle about the concern and decide to alert their manager. But when they try to start a discussion, the manager waves them away, saying, “I don’t have time to sit around worrying about ‘what-ifs.’ The CEO’s breathing down my neck to get this launched. Unless you’re sure there’s a problem, let’s all get back to work.” The team members look worriedly at each other, but nobody wants to be the one to challenge the manager to continue the discussion, especially with the prospect of layoffs on the horizon.
The next day, the launch occurs, and the developers’ fears come true: Thousands of customers’ accounts are compromised, prompting a class-action lawsuit and tons of negative press.
In this scenario, the manager, like the developers, is stressed out and under a time deadline to deliver a product. However, if the leaders of the company, from the CEO down, had worked to create an environment where employees were encouraged to challenge ideas and freely voice their concerns without fear of repercussions, this costly mistake could’ve been avoided. When the manager tried to wave the employees away without understanding the nature of the threat, team members would’ve felt safe to say, “No, we really need to take the time to discuss this.” It’s important for employees to be able to disagree — so long as it’s done respectfully and with a shared goal in mind.
Safe to take risks
On her first day as a sales rep, Marta receives a detailed script for how to pitch the company’s products to clients. She follows it for her first few calls, but it seems forced and unnatural and not at all consistent with her fun, friendly personality. So she makes some edits to the pitch, which evolves into more of an informal conversation. Marta wants to ask her manager if she can use this approach in an upcoming meeting with an important client. But what if the manager denies her request? Or even worse, what if they give her permission, but the new format bombs, and she doesn’t get the deal? Surely, her manager will never again take her ideas seriously.
So she sticks with the usual format, which falls flat. The client is unimpressed, and she walks away without a sale. Meanwhile, many of her co-workers are also having trouble meeting their sales goals.
If employees felt safe to take risks, even if that means making mistakes, Marta might have closed the deal. In organizations that adopt a growth mindset, risk-taking is encouraged. Mistakes are seen as part of a larger trajectory of learning and innovation. To foster a growth mindset and psychological safety, leaders can not only learn to practice growth-mindset behaviors, such as sharing mistakes and focusing on progress, they can also model situational humility, which is largely based on sharing what you don’t know. Marta’s manager could’ve said something like, “I don’t know how this will land, but let’s give it a go.”
Picture psych safety
Hopefully, these scenarios have given you a better picture of what psychological safety looks like in the workplace. Remember, the environment won’t always be comfortable — and that’s a good thing. Teams that feel psychologically safe are able to problem-solve more efficiently and reliably generate the deep insights that offer companies a competitive advantage. In addition to these organizational benefits, employees will experience improved mental health and well-being — which is just what the surgeon general ordered.
Author: NeuroLeadership Institute