How to Develop Psychological Safety and a Speak-Up Culture

How to Develop Psychological Safety and a Speak-Up Culture

by Felicity Menzies
Google’s 2015 study ‘Project Aristotle’ found that psychological safely was the most significant success factor underpinning high-performance teams across the organisation. Contrary to their expectations, the researchers reported that the capabilities of the individual team members mattered less for team performance than group processes (how team members shared information and collaborated). In particular, when individual members attached a low interpersonal risk to voicing their ideas or making mistakes, they were more likely to share novel information or challenge the status quo. In turn, the group was able to access and integrate a greater diversity of thought to drive innovation and to improve judgment and decision-making. Employees in psychologically safe teams were also less likely to want to leave Google, brought in more revenue and were rated as effective twice as often by executives.

Defining Psychological Safety

Amy Edmondson, who coined the term in 1999, defines psychological safety as a ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’’
When we propose a new idea or challenge the ideas and decisions of others at work we bear interpersonal risk—the possibility of being discredited, penalised or humiliated if we fail or make a mistake. Interpersonal risk-taking is greater in ambiguous and complex environments when there is less certainty attached to our ideas. Interpersonal risk-taking is also higher when our counterpart has higher status or more power, experience or expertise than us. In those contexts, we are motivated to engage in impression management techniques.
Alongside physical safety and security needs, all humans share psychological needs—the maintenance of high self-esteem and connection with others. Our universal needs motivate us to avoid situations that potentially bruise our ego or result in social exclusion or loss of status, or that may attract tangible penalties such as a financial punishment or reduced opportunities for career progression. When we perceive these risks to be high, we seek to prevent being perceived as ignorant, incompetent or deviant by refraining from offering novel ideas or from admitting mistakes.
In contrast, in psychologically safe settings, interpersonal risks are low. Psychological safety involves contexts in which we perceive that we will not be penalised nor negatively judged for mistakes or failures or for challenging the status quo. In such contexts, we are more willing to share novel ideas and to speak-up on sensitive issues.

Psychological Safety and Diversity

While psychological safety may be absent in homogenous workgroups, diverse workgroups may have to work harder than homogenous groups to foster a speak-up culture.
While diversity offers potential benefits, diversity also enhances the potential for language and other communication barriers. It heightens the risk of ambiguity, value conflicts, reasoning and decision-making differences, and stereotypes and bias threaten rapport and stifle the exchange of information and ideas. In those contexts, the potential for innovation and critical thinking that can arise from the sharing and integration of diversity of thought is not realised.
In diverse work settings, minority group members experience higher levels of workplace anxiety linked to exclusion, discrimination, harassment, and incivility as well as lowered access to resources required for job performance, fewer role models, lack of access to networks, pay inequality, and fewer opportunities for career progression. Research reports that women experience lower levels of psychological safety compared with men. Workplace exclusion is linked to suicide.
Research by Deloitte and Professor Kenji Yoshino from New York University explores the concept of covering—the active masking of difference by members of non-dominant groups in an attempt to ‘fit-in’ and side-step many of the minority stressors noted above. Covering has significant costs at both the individual and organisational level. At the level of the individual, when an individual’s behaviour or state of being is incongruent with their cultural values, the individual’s self-concept, self-worth, and well-being are negatively impacted. Thirty-two percent of employees who engage in covering report covering has negatively impacted their sense of self.
At the organisational level, the emotional dissonance experienced when an individual is required to act in a manner, or even observes activity inconsistent with his or her values or norms, acts as a demotivating force that can negatively impact engagement. Employees that engage in covering strategies to fit into dominant organisational norms report: 16% less committed to the organisation, 14% lower sense of belonging to the organisation, 15% less likely to perceive having opportunities to advance, and 27% more likely to have considered leaving the organisation in the past twelve months.
From the perspective of inclusion, when employees mask or cover their differences, an organisation cannot access or apply that difference to drive innovation and growth in new markets.

Psychological Safety at Work in Australia

In 2017, in a world-first, The Australian Workplace Psychological Safety Survey collected perceptions of psychological safety from a diverse cross-section of workers. Overall, the results indicated low levels of psychological safety with significant variations across income, age, gender, and education level:
  •      overall, only 24 per cent of respondents reported feeling safe to take risks at work
  •      lower income earning staff experience lower levels of psychological safety than higher income earning colleagues. Only 23 per cent of lower income-earning frontline employees felt their workplace was “psychologically safe” to take a risk, compared to 45 per cent of workers on significantly higher incomes
  •      younger respondents were more concerned about mistakes being held against them (36% compared with older respondents 12 – 21%)
  •      younger respondents found it significantly more difficult to ask colleagues for help (24% strongly agreed) compared with the average (18% strongly agreed)
  •      men were more likely to report that it was safe to take risks at work (38% strongly agreed or agreed) compared with women (29% strongly agreed or agreed)
  •      the higher the education level of a respondent, the more likely they were to feel safe to take risks. Almost 40 per cent of people who had received a degree or above agreed to feeling safe to take risks at work, while only 25 per cent of people who had completed year 10 or a trade apprenticeship agreed.
  • 58 per cent of all respondents felt that their colleagues often reject others for being different.

Psychological Safety, Inclusion and Innovation

In today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) business environment where past methods cannot solve new problems, eliciting and integrating a diversity of thought is essential for challenging established practices and for breakthrough innovation. Innovation is a two-step process: (1) unlocking access to diverse perspectives and sources of information (idea generation), and (2) the merging or integration of these ideas in new or novel ways (elaboration and transformation).
Diversity management refers to organisational efforts to manage diversity’s complexity and unlock diversity of thought. Today’s best practice diversity management involves an organisational culture that celebrates, values, respects and rewards individual differences and unique perspectives. Diversity practictioners call this inclusion. Psychological safety supports inclusion by creating a safe place for individuals to bring their whole selves to work —an environment where members from non-majority groups can share novel ideas and perspectives free from the risk of ridicule, rejection or penalty. In a psychologically safe environment, employees are less likely to cover or mask their differences.
In addition to encouraging the sharing of novel ideas required for creative collaboration, psychological safety promotes innovation through the broaden and build mode of positive emotion. Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina has found that positive emotions like trust, curiosity, confidence, and inspiration broaden the mind and encourage divergent thinking and creativity.

Psychological Safety and Risk

A lack of psychological safety has contributed to many noteworthy organisational errors and failures. Where psychologically safety is lacking, employees are less likely to speak up and challenge the behaviours of colleagues or superiors or challenge the status quo. A reluctance to speak up can be particularly problematic for industries with a higher risk of physical injury or professional misconduct. Cultivating psychological safety reduces the reliance ‘whistleblowers’ because it fosters an environment where all team members feel empowered to question the behaviours and decisions of others and to call out questionable practices.

Additional Benefits of Psychological Safety

Not surprisingly, given its positive emotional effects, psychological safety is linked to greater employee engagement. Over time, the positive effects of psychological safety on employee well-being drive improved productivity and organisational performance.

The Role of Leaders

Leader behaviours are critical for fostering psychological safety. A single instance of a team leader critiquing, talking over, or otherwise dismissing a concern raised by a junior team member can damage perceptions of psychological safety for the whole team. This is why perceptions of psychological safety can vary markedly across departments or workgroups.
However, because psychological safety is a group-level phenomenon, what matters is not only the behaviours of leaders but also the behaviours of all group members. Leaders must pay attention to the responses of others as well as their own responses.

Techniques for Nurturing Psychological Safety

Actions speak louder than words. Leaders who are committed to fostering inclusion, innovation and a speak up culture must model, promote and reward behaviours that promote a safe work context where all employees to share their novel ideas and learnings or challenge the status quo without fear of retribution or humiliation.
Techniques for nurturing psychological safety include:
  •      Foster a pro-diversity mindset and build diverse teams. Leaders should state explicitly that diversity is a competitive advantage for innovation and growth and should strive to establish diverse teams.
  •      Foster a culture of respectful debate. Formally appointing a devil’s advocate can reduce anxiety around speaking out by de-coupling the argument from the individual. Cooperative conflict is also useful for promoting respectful debate. Whereas a competitive approach to conflict involves a win-lose context, a cooperative approach to conflict involves a win-win context that emphasises collective goals and success and supports relational harmony. In cooperative conflict, group members share their ideas, take the perspective of others, confirm their commitment to resolving the conflict for mutual benefit and integrate diverse perspectives to create new solutions. One approach involves employees jotting their ideas down anonymously on post-it notes that are placed around the room’s perimeter for colleagues to read. The manager then facilitates a group discussion of the ideas noted in the context of looking for the best way to integrate those ideas to achieve the group’s shared objectives. This can be contrasted to a competitive workplace culture where colleagues compete against one another in a face-to-face assertive brainstorming session.
  •      Reward contributions from diverse members. Acknowledge and reward team members for speaking up (e.g. offering a new idea, admitting an error, asking a question)
  •      Share personal stories. Personal story-telling creates authentic connections with employees and normalises the sharing of personal experiences. Sharing personal information develops empathy and intimacy and enhances perceptions of psychological safety.
  •      Practice emotional regulation. Manage your stress response and remain positive, open and approachable.
  •      Be available. Leader accessibility provides reassurance to team members that you have their back.
  •      Provide room to experiment and fail. Provide protection and support when employees encounter difficulty or challenges in their efforts to innovate and deliver results.
  •      Avoid blame. Blame and criticism lead to conflict and defensiveness. Express performance issues using factual and neutral language. Seek the employee’s explanation and ask for suggested solutions. Ask how you can support your employee. Do not punish failure. Show gratitude for quality work and individual and collective efforts, regardless of the result.
  •     Model attention to outlaying information. Because confirmation bias and affinity bias can lead employees to discount the views of minority members, deliberately acknowledge minority input to send a message to the group that all views are valued.
  •      Model curiosity. Ask a lot of questions to encourage employees to voice their ideas and to demonstrate a willingness for diverse perspectives and ideas. Actively seek dissenting views and do not shut down ideas. When people feel that their managers want to hear from them and value their perspectives they are more likely to input to discussions.
  •      Frame job tasks as collaborative learning. Offer the rationale for speaking up. State explicitly that in a disruptive and complex environment, no one person can possibly have all the answers. Make it clear that innovation through creative collaboration is the nature of work and that everyone is expected to contribute to decision-making. Stress that the ambiguity, complexity, and volatility of the business environment necessitate new solutions which can only be generated through the successful integration of novel and diverse ideas.
  •      Model reasonable risk-taking and failure. Demonstrate to your employees that it is okay to take reasonable risks even if they do not always succeed. Emphasise that failure is an opportunity to learn and model how this is done by highlighting how your own failures have contributed to a subsequent breakthrough.
  •     Model humility and courage. Acknowledge when you have made a mistake and be willing to admit you don’t have all the answers. Acknowledging gaps in your knowledge creates room for others to speak up to fill the gap and also to own and share learnings from their own mistakes.
  •      Participative management. Status diversity refers to differences related to professional rank. When status diversity is present, power differentials skew contributions towards members with higher status. Dismantling perceptions of hierarchy improves the willingness of direct reports to share their ideas. Voice your willingness to be challenged on your ideas by more junior staff across the business and reward those who challenge you.
  •      Model openness to feedback and criticism. Employ 360 feedback and deliberately seek real-time feedback from employees on your leadership skills. Seeking employee feedback on your leadership capability signals to employees that their views and experiences are valued.
  •      Accountability. Set clear goals and KPIs. Psychological safety is not about being nice or lowering performance standards. Rather, it recognises the contribution of diversity and collaboration for high-performance.
  •      Offer development opportunities. When leaders assign high-profile stretch assignments it signals to their direct reports that they trust their capability.
  •      Develop shared norms that promote contribution from all team members. Don’t let any person or subgroup dominate the discussion. For example, a ‘no-interruption’ rule prevents some voices dominating others. Also, look for signs that someone might have something to add but are holding back and intentionally invite the contributions of all team members.
  •      Promote the development of friendships. Trust has two components: affective-based trust and cognitive-based trust. Affective-based trust is emotional and forms as a result of frequent positive interpersonal interactions where individuals share personal information. Cognitive-based trust develops from the demonstration of competence.  Affective-based trust improves intimacy and openness. When group members develop affective-based trust, they are less concerned about exposing their weaknesses or vulnerabilities and less suspicious of other members’ intentions. Affective-based trust reduces the risk of fault-lines and promotes the open sharing of knowledge and ideas. Social activities that provide opportunities for non-work interaction support the development of intragroup friendships as do work schedules that allow time for non-task based interactions on the job. Open office designs that increase the likelihood of water-cooler style interactions are also helpful. When team members are geographically dispersed, psychological safety can be enhanced through regular site visits.
  •      Highlight competencies of members. Whereas developing affective-based trust involves strengthening interpersonal friendships, building cognitive-based trust involves initiatives that promote the sharing of knowledge about group members’ skills and experience. One way to do this is to ask group members to share their short-form CV with other members of the group. Managers can also increase the salience of each member’s value by highlighting the unique contributions each individual brings to the group and by connecting members with other members who possess skills and knowledge that can help them in their role.
  •      Develop a strong group identity. Managers can reduce the risk of subgroup fault-lines in workgroups by employing techniques to strengthen group identity. The creation of an overarching group identity dismantles us-versus-them categorisations. Managers can strengthen group identity by stressing group goals and the interdependence of group members for the successful achievement of those goals, and by reinforcing those messages at regular intervals.

Measuring Success

The success of a psychological safety cultural change intervention should be tracked through formal surveys. As an example, the more “yes” answers employees give to the following questions, the better the psychological safety culture within the workplace.
  •      Are policies on discrimination, harassment, bullying, and related issues actively implemented?
  •      Do you feel that you are receiving fair pay and benefits, in relation to your workload and your company’s profit?
  •      To whom should you discuss your work-related issues? Is there a clear protocol?
  •      Do you perceive your supervisor as significantly concerned with your well-being as an employee?
  •      Do you feel free to share suggestions and concerns with your colleagues?
  •      “How confident are you that you won’t receive retaliation or criticism if you admit an error or make a mistake?”
  •      Is the physical structure of your workspace safe and conducive to productivity?
  •      Are you given fair opportunities for training, promotion?
  •      Are you offered flexible working arrangements?
Research shows that if you want to create teams capable of innovating you need diversity. But diversity, per se, if not enough. Without psychological safety, individuals may be reluctant to speak up and you may miss out on breakthrough ideas, learning from mistakes, and the raising of valid concerns or red flags. By creating a team climate that reduces the interpersonal risks, the team will be rewarded with better decisions, creative collaboration, motivated members, and improved performance.


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Felicity Menzies is CEO and Principal Consultant at Include-Empower.Com, a diversity and inclusion consultancy with expertise in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, cultural intelligence and inclusion, gender equity, empowering diverse talent. Felicity is an accredited facilitator with the Cultural Intelligence Centre and the author of A World of Difference. Felicity has over 15 years of experience working with and managing diverse workforces in blue chip companies and is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand. Felicity also holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.