An organization’s effectiveness depends on its employees’ ability to see themselves as valued team members and feel comfortable sharing opinions without negative consequences. A three-year research study involving 50,000 Google employees revealed that the top differentiator among the company’s highest performing teams was psychological safety.
Leaders have the most influence when it comes to making team members feel safe. Yet, many managers lack an understanding of how to create a psychologically safe workplace. A survey by McKinsey & Company found that only 26% of business leaders often demonstrate the positive traits necessary to promote psychological safety.
Follow these steps to make sure every single person can show up as their authentic self and express their ideas and feelings openly without fear of judgment or retaliation.
Step 1: Take ownership
As a leader, you must take responsibility for creating psychological safety and make it a priority. It’s easy to get busy on project tasks or assume that the team feels safe because you haven’t heard anything otherwise. You might also mistakenly think that everyone else feels safe to speak their minds because you do.
Believing responsibility lies higher up the management chain or with the company as a whole can lead to a dead end. Until you take ownership of psychological safety, you can’t create it. Make psychological safety a primary focus of your time and attention so that each and every member of your team feels safe.
Step 2: Create a strong sense of belonging
Employees who feel a sense of belonging on the team and in the workplace feel included, valued, and heard. To create and maintain a sense of belonging, you must look for opportunities to be an ally for those who are underrepresented in the group.
Teams are made up of people with different ideas, backgrounds, personality types, and communication styles. Make space for all of them to feel like they belong, while celebrating their differences. Chances are your team includes both extroverts and introverts, so remember to call on people who may be inclined to stay quiet or struggle to get a word in edge-wise and ask for their feedback. Intentionally modeling these types of inclusive behaviors drives trust, as well as psychological safety.
Step 3: Continuously solicit input
Make it a regular part of your job to find out how each employee is feeling about their sense of belonging and inclusion. Allow team members to really be themselves and share their feelings, thoughts, and suggestions openly without worrying that they’ll be excluded because their idea or opinion differs from yours or the rest of the team.
Whether you set up routine one-on-one meetings with your team members, or send Slack messages to check in, be proactive about your communication. Having an open-door policy isn’t enough. Regularly reaching out, actively listening without judgment, and remaining empathetic during these conversations builds psychological safety.
Step 4: Promote organizational transparency
In order for your employees to feel aligned with the company’s mission and bring their authentic selves to the workplace every day, you need to be an authentic leader who promotes a free flow of information. Keeping your team apprised of developments that affect the business and workers means not holding back when it comes to talking about challenges, as well as successes. It’s also important to ensure everyone knows where they can find the information and resources they need to excel at their jobs.
Step 5: Remember your own psychological safety
To foster a culture where employees feel safe, leaders must feel safe themselves. They aren’t immune from feeling out of place or unheard. If you are struggling, talk to someone.
When both leaders and team members feel psychologically safe, they can take more risks, innovate, and perform at a higher level. High-performing teams — and their leaders — accomplish more with less stress, conflict, and headaches.
Step 6: Keep learning together
Focus on helping each team member learn, grow, and progress in their career, and you will create a high-performing team. Your own learning is integral to your success. Among their findings, McKinsey & Company discovered that “investing in leadership development is an effective method for cultivating the combination of leadership behaviors that enhance psychological safety.” Make it a practice to ask for regular feedback about yourself as a leader and seek out leadership development opportunities.
In part 2 of this mini-series, we discuss some of the major barriers to psychological safety and how to mitigate them.