How to Create a Psychologically Safe Environment for Your Team

by Zach Montroy

As the leader of an organization, you set the tone for your team. It seems obvious, but it has far-reaching implications. Recently, many companies have faced damning evidence of their toxic work culture as employees quit in droves. People have begun asking, “How can I change things for my employees?” Answering this question – and helping leaders answer it, too – is all part of the work I do.

Why Do We Care About a Psychologically Safe Environment?

Much attention has been paid to the so-called “Great Recession,” and folks are waving goodbye to their former companies without a backward glance. Their reasons? Many talk about work environments that chip away at their souls. Quitting becomes a logical approach to misery.

It’s not an inevitable situation. There is a way to create a psychologically safe environment for your team. Imagine a workplace that feels invigorating, challenging (in a good way), and even fun. It is absolutely possible, and it doesn’t mean sacrificing growth or profit.

What is a Psychologically Safe Environment?

What do we mean when we talk about a “psychologically safe environment?” Organizational behavioral scientist Amy Edmondson of Harvard is widely considered the pioneer of the concept. She says an environment is safe when members feel comfortable taking risks with one another. When people feel safe, they can raise concerns in the interest of creating positive change.

In her now-famous TEDx talk, Edmondson digs into the how-tos. She lays out three steps for creating a psychologically safe environment within your organization.

How Can We Create a Psychologically Safe Environment?

On a granular level, we’re hoping to create an atmosphere that encourages people to speak up at work. We want to encourage risk-taking as a way to reach more effective solutions and challenge an ineffective status-quo. How do we do it?

1. Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem.

When your organization is embarking on a new challenge, Edmondson says you should be clear that uncertainty lies ahead. When you let your team know that you’ve never been there before, it gives people a reason to speak up when they have a concern or suggestion.

2. Acknowledge your own fallibility.

Here’s where you’ll need plenty of humility as a leader. It’s tempting to present yourself as the ultimate authority or expert over your team. A rigid hierarchical approach can often shut down innovation and discourage employees from taking risks. Instead, make it clear to your team that you’re not immune to mistakes. Make it clear that accountability goes two ways. 

3. Model curiosity and ask lots of questions.

Setting yourself up as the ultimate expert shuts down questions and prevents employees from presenting another solution. If you have all the answers, there’s no need for them to offer an alternate view. It even makes it difficult for them to raise concerns. Instead, show your team how you’d like them to engage with you and each other. Start from a place of curiosity. Seek to understand first.

Make the Effort

Sure, it can take time, self-examination, humility, and plenty of hard work to create a psychologically safe environment within your organization. Is it worth it? Absolutely. Studies have shown that this type of environment reduces employee churn, improves retention, strengthens reputation, and even increases the bottom line.

Need help to begin the process within your organization? Reach out to book a call, and let’s begin the brainstorming process.

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