Introduction

Creating Psychological Safety: Ever felt like you couldn’t speak up at work without facing backlash? Imagine sitting in a meeting with a brilliant idea but hesitating to share it because you’re worried about how your boss or colleagues might react. It’s a common scenario that many of us have experienced, and it highlights a crucial issue in today’s workplaces: the lack of psychological safety.

Psychological safety is the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. It’s a concept that has gained significant attention since Amy Edmondson’s research was published in the Harvard Business Review. Leaders and organisations are increasingly recognising that teams and workplaces thrive when people feel safe to express themselves openly. However, despite its intuitive appeal, much of the advice on how to create psychological safety has missed the mark.

In this blog, we’ll dive into the real essence of psychological safety and debunk some common misconceptions. We’ll explore why it’s not just about leaders creating a safe climate but about building trusting relationships. We’ll also discuss practical tips for both leaders and team members to cultivate an environment where everyone feels safe to speak up. By the end of this read, you’ll have a fresh perspective on what it truly takes to create psychological safety at work and why it’s worth the effort. So, let’s get started on this journey towards a more open, collaborative, and innovative workplace!

 

Common Misconceptions About Creating Psychological Safety

Why Most Advice Misses the Mark in Creating Psychological Safety

When it comes to creating psychological safety at work, many well-intentioned leaders often find themselves following advice that, unfortunately, misses the mark. Common recommendations include making psychological safety a priority, facilitating everyone to speak up, establishing norms for handling failure, creating space for new ideas, and embracing productive conflict. While these suggestions sound good in theory, they often fall short in practice.

Let’s break down why these pieces of advice might not be as effective as they seem:

Making it a Priority: Simply declaring psychological safety as a priority doesn’t automatically make it happen. It’s like saying, “We value innovation,” without providing the tools or environment to create it. Psychological safety is not just a policy; it’s a practice that needs to be embedded in daily interactions and relationships.

Facilitating Everyone Speaking Up: Encouraging everyone to speak up can be counterproductive if the underlying trust isn’t there. People need to feel genuinely safe and respected before they will voice their thoughts and concerns. Without trust, this can lead to forced or superficial participation.

Establishing Norms for Handling Failure: While it’s important to have norms around failure, leaders must live and demonstrate these norms. If leaders don’t model these behaviours, the norms will be seen as mere lip service.

Creating Space for New Ideas: Simply creating space for new ideas isn’t enough. There needs to be a culture where new ideas are not just welcomed but also valued and acted upon. Otherwise, people will quickly learn that sharing new ideas is futile.

Embracing Productive Conflict: Embracing conflict can be beneficial, but only if it maintains respect and trust. Without a foundation of psychological safety, conflict can easily become destructive rather than productive.

Psychological safety is not about following a checklist of actions. It’s about building genuine, trusting relationships where people feel safe to express themselves without fear of negative consequences.

By understanding these common misconceptions, leaders can move beyond superficial actions and focus on what truly matters: fostering trust and respect in their relationships with team members. This is the foundation of a psychologically safe workplace.

 

Understanding Creating Psychological Safety

It’s About Relationships, Not Just Leadership

When we talk about creating psychological safety, it’s easy to think of it as something that leaders need to create through policies and initiatives. However, the reality is much more nuanced. Psychological safety is fundamentally a quality of relationships, not just a climate or culture that leaders can impose from the top down.

Psychological safety is about trust. It’s about the trust that exists between individuals in a team, and it’s built through everyday interactions. Whether or not someone feels safe to speak up has as much to do with their personal relationships with colleagues as it does with the overall environment created by leadership.

For instance, you might have a leader who is very open and encouraging, but if team members don’t trust each other, they still won’t feel safe to share their thoughts and ideas. Trust is paradoxical in nature; we have to act in a trusting way before we can know if someone is trustworthy. This means that individuals need to take the first step to speak up, even if they’re unsure of the outcome.

Let’s put this into a more relatable context. Imagine you’re in a team meeting, and you have a suggestion that could improve a project. If you don’t trust your colleagues to listen without judgment, you’re likely to keep that idea to yourself. On the other hand, if you have a strong, trusting relationship with your team, you’re more likely to share your thoughts openly.

Building this kind of trust doesn’t happen overnight. It requires consistent, respectful interactions where people feel heard and valued. Leaders play a crucial role in modelling these behaviours, but it’s equally important for team members to engage in building trust with each other. This means being curious about others’ experiences, showing respect even when you disagree, and being transparent about your own thoughts and feelings in a skilful way.

In essence, creating psychological safety is a collective effort. It’s about everyone in the team working together to build relationships where trust can flourish. When people feel safe to express themselves, the entire team benefits from increased collaboration, innovation, and overall performance.

 

The Role of Leaders and Followers in Creating Psychological Safety

It’s a Two-Way Street

Creating a psychologically safe environment is not solely the responsibility of leaders; it requires active participation from both leaders and team members. Psychological safety is a shared responsibility, and everyone in the workplace plays a crucial role in creating it.

Leaders often bear the brunt of the responsibility for creating a safe environment, but this perspective overlooks the significant role that team members play. Psychological safety is influenced as much by co-workers as by leaders. This means that everyone, regardless of their position, must engage in behaviours that promote trust and openness.

For leaders, this involves modelling the behaviours they wish to see in their team. They need to be curious, respectful, and transparent in their interactions. Leaders should work on building trusting relationships with their team members, especially those who are most influential or perceived as troublemakers. Leaders can set a tone that encourages others to do the same by demonstrating a willingness to listen to and respect different viewpoints.

For team members, contributing to psychological safety means being willing to speak up and share their experiences, even when it’s uncomfortable. It also involves being respectful and curious about the experiences of others. When team members engage in open, honest, and skilful communication, they help create an environment where everyone feels safe to express themselves.

 

Practical Tips for Leaders in Creating Psychological Safety

Building Trusting Relationships

Creating a psychologically safe environment starts with building trusting relationships. Here are some practical tips for leaders to foster psychological safety within their teams:

Be Curious: Show genuine interest in your team members’ thoughts and feelings. Ask open-ended questions and listen actively to their responses. This demonstrates that you value their input and are willing to understand their perspectives.

Be Respectful: Treat everyone with respect, regardless of their position or opinion. Acknowledge their contributions and avoid dismissing or belittling their ideas. Respectful interactions build a foundation of trust and mutual respect.

Be Transparent: Share your own thoughts and feelings openly, but do so skillfully. Differentiate between facts and your perceptions or opinions, and express the latter as just your experience, not the absolute truth. This invites open dialogue and reduces defensiveness.

Model the Behavior: Demonstrate the behaviours you want to see in your team. Show curiosity and respect in your interactions, and be transparent about your own experiences. When team members see you modelling these behaviours, they are more likely to follow suit.

Engage in Learning Conversations: Instead of giving feedback that implies others are responsible for your experience, engage in conversations aimed at understanding each other’s experiences. This approach helps resolve conflicts and builds psychological safety.

Target Key Relationships: Focus on building strong relationships with key influencers within your team. These individuals can help spread a culture of psychological safety by modelling the desired behaviours and influencing others.

 

The Importance of Self-Differentiation in Creating Psychological Safety

Why You Shouldn’t Take Responsibility for Others’ Experiences

Self-differentiation is a crucial concept in maintaining healthy psychological boundaries within a team. It involves recognizing and respecting the differences between your own experiences and those of others, without taking responsibility for how others feel or react. This ability to be separate from, yet connected to, others is essential for creating a psychologically safe environment.

Self-differentiation means understanding that you are responsible for your own thoughts, feelings, and actions, while others are responsible for theirs. This concept is rooted in Bowen Family Systems theory, which highlights the negative impact of making others responsible for your experiences and vice versa. When leaders and team members take responsibility for each other’s experiences, it can lead to “psychological fusion,” where individuals unconsciously try to manage each other’s feelings and reactions. This often results in a lack of curiosity about others’ experiences and can create an environment where people feel unsafe to express themselves.

By practising self-differentiation, leaders can create a space where team members feel safe to share their true thoughts and feelings without fear of judgment or retribution. This involves being clear about your own experiences while being curious and respectful of others’ experiences. It also means avoiding the temptation to change or fix others’ experiences, which can lead to a decrease in trust and psychological safety.

Infographic on creating psychological safety in the workplace, highlighting relational aspects, common missteps, and the roles of leaders and team members.

An infographic outlining key aspects of psychological safety at work, including relational trust, common missteps, creating safe spaces, and the roles of leaders and team members.

Being Honest Without Being Hurtful  in Creating Psychological Safety

Skillful transparency is about being honest in a way that fosters understanding and maintains psychological safety. It involves distinguishing between facts and perceptions and expressing your experiences without making others feel judged or defensive.

Tips for Being Honest Without Being Hurtful in Creating Psychological Safety

Differentiate Between Facts and Perceptions: Clearly separate what you observe from the stories you create about those observations. For example, instead of saying, “You don’t respect me,” which is a perception, you could say, “When you interrupt me while I’m speaking, it makes me feel disrespected,” which is a fact-based observation followed by your personal experience.

Express Your Experience, Not Judgments: Share your feelings and thoughts without framing them as the absolute truth. This invites dialogue rather than defensiveness. For instance, instead of saying, “That was a terrible job,” you could say, “I noticed some issues with the project that concern me. Can we discuss them?”

Be Curious and Respectful: Show genuine interest in the other person’s perspective. Ask open-ended questions to understand their experience. This helps build trust and opens up a constructive conversation.

Focus on What’s Pertinent: Share only the thoughts, feelings, and wants that are relevant and important for the other person to hear. This ensures that your feedback is helpful and not overwhelming.

Use “I” Statements: Frame your feedback in terms of your own experience. This reduces the likelihood of the other person feeling attacked. For example, “I felt frustrated when the deadline was missed because it impacted our project timeline.”

Let’s have a look at an Example

Scenario: A team member, Sam, consistently misses deadlines, affecting the team’s progress.

Unskillful Feedback: “You are always late with your work. This is unacceptable and shows a lack of commitment.”

Skillful Transparency:

Observation: “I’ve noticed that the last three deadlines were missed.”

Experience: “When deadlines are missed, I feel stressed because it impacts our project timeline and team morale.”

Curiosity: “Can you help me understand what challenges you’re facing with meeting these deadlines?”

Scenario: A colleague, Alex, frequently interrupts during meetings, which disrupts the flow of discussion.

Unskillful Feedback: “You need to stop interrupting everyone. It’s really annoying.”

Skillful Transparency:

Observation: “I’ve noticed that you often interject when others are speaking during meetings.”

Experience: “When this happens, I find it difficult to follow the discussion and it disrupts the flow of ideas.”

Curiosity: “Is there a reason you feel the need to interject? How can we ensure everyone gets a chance to speak?”

By practising skilful transparency, leaders and team members can create an environment where honest feedback is given and received constructively, fostering psychological safety and improving team dynamics.

Conclusion

In this blog, we have explored the essential elements of creating a psychologically safe workplace, emphasising the importance of building trusting relationships, practicing self-differentiation, and being skillfully transparent.

We discussed:

Building Trusting Relationships: Leaders should be curious, respectful, transparent, and model the desired behaviors to foster psychological safety.

Self-Differentiation: Understanding that you are responsible for your own experiences and not for others’ experiences is crucial for maintaining healthy psychological boundaries.

Skillful Transparency: Being honest without being hurtful involves distinguishing between facts and perceptions, expressing your experiences without judgments, and being curious and respectful of others’ experiences.

Reflect on your own workplace relationships and consider how you can contribute to a psychologically safe environment. Ask yourself:

How can I build more trusting relationships with my colleagues?

Am I taking responsibility for others’ experiences, and how can I practice better self-differentiation?

How can I be more skillfully transparent in my communications?

Have you encountered challenges in creating psychological safety at work?

What strategies have you found effective?