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The idea of securing physically safe working environments is intuitive, but what is psychological safety in the workplace? 

Many organizations spend money and other resources reducing physical risks in the workplace, but the same cannot yet be said of securing psychological safety. 

Most of my research and work revolves around creating exceptional workplace experiences in pursuit of a better world of work for all. A key part to making this a reality requires that psychological safety be present on every team and at every level of an organization. 

After reading this article, you will: 

  • Understand the concept of psychological safety
  • Recognize its importance to organizational effectiveness and performance
  • Learn about whether shifts to hybrid ways of working impacted psychological safety
  • Identify the four levels of psychological safety
  • Know how to build psychological safety on your teams and in your companies building on each step.

Jump to:

Let’s dive in.

What Is Psychological Safety In The Workplace?

According to the Center for Creative Leadership, psychological safety in the workplace is, “...a shared belief by members of a team, that others on the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish them for speaking up.”

More broadly, it is the belief that people can speak up, offer feedback, ask questions, and offer other kinds of suggestions without being punished or humiliated. 

The presence of psychological safety is essential in the many social groups we form throughout our lives, including our friend groups, families, and other organizations of people working toward a common goal.

Why Is Psychological Safety Important?

People feel like they can have an opinion. Issues are brought to light.

The importance of psychological safety can be better illustrated when it is missing in the workplace—the negative consequences that emerge when there is fear of speaking up, asking questions, and challenging the status quo. 

Businesses fail to innovate when folks within an organization fear speaking up, asking questions, and making mistakes by trying new things.  

Additionally, when folks don’t feel as though their ideas will be heard, might immediately be rejected, or worse, run the risk of damaging their reputation, people will begin to feel their sense of satisfaction, engagement, and commitment to an organization’s cause to diminish. 

These folks will leave and take their brilliant ideas, diverse ways of solving problems, and overall diverse perspectives to companies that will reward what they do best. 

This graphic from Liz Fosslien sums it up best:

Source: Liz Fosslien

Organizations failing to secure physiological safety run the risk of reducing their capabilities to innovate and retain top talent. 

This spells “disaster” for companies whose continued existence relies on the creativity and innovation of the folks who work there and the environment promoting those qualities.

Though psychological safety is a relatively new concept, its presence applies in all workplaces—in-office, remote spaces, and hybrid workspaces. 

Let’s quickly explore how recent shifts to hybrid working have impacted psychological safety and what that means for the future of work as workplace trends continue to move away from our traditional ways of working.

How The Shift To Hybrid Working Impacted Psychological Safety?

Securing and maintaining psychological safety is challenging enough for managers and organizations to do in-person and during what might seem like straightforward challenges.

The unpredictability borne of the COVID-19 pandemic precipitated swift and unpredicted transitions to work-from-home (WFH) and hybrid work. These challenges were anything but straightforward or simple. 

In her Harvard Business Review article on the topic, Professor Amy C. Edmonson and her co-author note that the traditional ways of promoting work-related psychological safety began to blur as the lines between work and everyday life have created workplace disparities to emerge from deeper, more personal areas of people’s lives that were not as evident in the former workplace paradigm. 

I was speaking with Leadership Consultant and coach Ebony Smith about current friction points clients have been experiencing due to hybrid work. During our conversation, she highlighted one pain point in particular involving people’s inability to observe modeled behavior in a hybrid environment. 

As she notes, “Observing others helps with determining social norms and aids in acculturation for new employees.” Opportunities to observe desirable behaviors are more scarce in hybrid environments. As a result, it is more challenging to model behaviors promoting psychological safety and to observe them.

An adage I used to hear earlier in my HR career involved the idea that we would leave “life at home” at home and focus on work at work. In hindsight, this has never worked. We must move forward as we recognize that work and life are integrated—not separate and distinct. 

Because the shift to WFH and remote work has greatly increased, and because many seem to prefer their new working conditions, a return to the old paradigm is unlikely to be a viable solution.  

The new questions are:

  • What must leaders to do to facilitate psychological safety in a way that enhances the employee experience, maximizes employee engagement, and promotes productivity? 
  • What must leaders and the organizations do more (or less of) to maximize team performance, develop high-performance teams they may not see in person, and foster psychologically safe environments for all of their people—wherever they complete their work?
  • How do all organization members—from top leadership to middle management, HR teams, and all other team members—contribute to building psychological safety?

Let’s explore this step-by-step to learn how we might do this in our new work environments. 

Download our 2024 Workplace Trends Report to stay ahead in a transforming HR landscape. Get insights from leaders on trends that will define your strategies in AI, talent dynamics, and DEI.

Download our 2024 Workplace Trends Report to stay ahead in a transforming HR landscape. Get insights from leaders on trends that will define your strategies in AI, talent dynamics, and DEI.

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How To Create Psychological safety In The Workplace?

The work now is to find new, sustainable ways to navigate the tension between what is good for business and what is good for people in this modern context. 

To foster psychological safety and inclusion, leaders must ensure that the four stages of psychological safety are present within the organizations. In the next section, let us explore the four stages and look at each in turn. 

The 4 Stages Of Psychological Safety

According to Dr. Timothy Clarke in his book The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation, there are four stages of psychological safety.

In the next four sections of this article, we will review each stage and identify ways that leaders can create psychological safety through each phase. They are: 

Though there are actions leaders must take to promote psychological safety at each level, the next section details specific ways that leaders can create and maintain each of the four levels of psychological safety to produce highly effective teams. 

Moving through these steps and effectively embedding them into an organization’s company culture can create high-performing teams throughout the organization.

In the following section, we’ll dissect each level more deeply.

4 levels of psychological safety framework graphic

Inclusion Safety

Inclusion Safety refers to one’s ability to feel like and be themselves, and be accepted for who they are, inclusive of all the various attributes that make them different. 

Inclusion Safety satisfies our human needs to be included in our social settings, be and feel accepted, and feel like we belong. This requires empathy and helps reduces the presence of harm.

At the foundational level, inclusion safety is a starting point supporting positive mental health outcomes and increased levels of employee engagement. 

To create and maintain Inclusion Safety on one’s team and in the organization, leaders must: 

  • Take interest, ask questions
  • Invite and make space for folks at the table
  • Share and practice vulnerability
  • Create, support, and invest in groups for diverse members of the workplace to congregate and navigate issues they have in common in workplace (e.g., employee resource groups (ERGs)).
What does this look like?

Here are specific ways leaders can foster inclusion safety on their team: 

  • (Demonstrate) Worth - Be conscious of the unique value everyone brings to your team and ensure that everyone understands their worth.
  • Welcome - Go beyond inviting folks to attend and participate in your team meetings - make them feel welcome. This builds mutual respect among your attendees.
  • Genuine desire to learn more - Learn more about the folks you work with and get to understand what makes them tick. Use these kinds of questions to learn more, invite folks to share, and allow for members to build mutual respect for each other and what they bring to the table
inclusion safety graphic

Learning Safety

Learning Safety refers to one’s ability to learn, ask questions, experiment as part of their learning, and make mistakes safely. 

Learning Safety satisfies our human need to learn and to grow, and this does not happen when people are afraid of asking questions, trying new things, or making mistakes from which they can learn. Feedback is a gift and should be treated as such. 

To create and maintain Learning Safety on one’s team and in one’s organization, leaders must:

  • Model growth-oriented behaviors and a learner’s mindset
  • Encourage learning and experimentation
  • Protect workers and teams from being punished for making mistakes - stifling the birth of a new idea!
What does this look like?

Here are specific ways leaders can foster Learning Safety on their teams: 

  • Prototype - As a leader, demonstrate the learning behavior you wish to see on the team, such as making controlled risks, being open to feedback, and sharing learnings with the group 
  • Promote - Actively make experimentation a part of your team’s workflow and encourage time for “big thinking” 
  • Protect - Every idea, no matter how seemingly “odd” or out there, has the potential to turn into something great. The key here is that mistakes happen, are part of learning, and policies should communicate that “mistakes” do not come with negative consequences.
learner safety graphic

Contributor Safety

Contributor Safety refers to one’s ability to make suggestions and share their ideas, using their knowledge, skills, attitudes, and other attributes (KSAOs) to offer meaningful contributions. 

Contributor Safety satisfies our human needs to make a difference by applying our strengths and talents to our work, team members, and workplaces. Offer some autonomy with a side of guidance in return for results. 

This also promotes interpersonal risk-taking to some degree.

To create and maintain Contributor Safety on our work teams, leaders must:

  • Communicate a shared sense of purpose (the “why”)
  • Effectively organize each team member to the right activities (the “what”)
  • Empower teams to identify the correct approach (the “how”).

What does this look like?

Here are specific ways leaders can foster Contributor Safety on their teams: 

  • Always explain the “why behind decisions are made, especially when they differ from any individual’s or team’s perspective
  • Align people with work and tasks that suit their strengths and interests
  • Don’t micromanage - Empower folks to figure out the best way to do their work
contributor safety graphic

Challenger Safety

Challenger Safety refers to one’s ability to feel safe speaking up against the status quo, offer candid feedback to folks that might outrank them, and productively disagree. 

Challenger Safety satisfies our human needs to make things better and to strive for improvements. To support this, leaders must offer cover for their reports in exchange for candor and transparency.

To create and maintain Challenger Safety, leaders must ensure all team members have opportunities to: 

  • Engage in creative and constructive conflict
  • Explore divergent thinking
  • Tolerate candor
  • Vocalize dissent even when their ideas are in the minority

What does this look like?

Here are specific ways leaders can foster Challenger Safety on their teams: 

  • Facilitate disagreements as needed, leaning into questions to move conversations forward
  • Limit restrictions on brainstorming - novelty often comes from unexpected connections
  • Practice Radical Candor: Keep your feedback, “Kind, clear, specific, and sincere.”
challenger safety graphic

Psychological Safety - A Requirement For All Workplaces

A psychologically safe workplace is within everyone’s grasp, whether they work on-site, in a remote setting, or in a hybrid format. 

The presence and maintenance of psychological safety at all levels are essential to exceptional workplace culture, an outstanding employee experience, and an overall workplace in which the best ideas are shared, discussed, and implemented. 

This, in turn, births innovation and organizational growth for companies that can capitalize on the many benefits of securing psychological safety as a core competency. 

In an ever-changing business context, a psychologically safe work environment, as we will continue to see, will signify high levels of organizational effectiveness, productivity, innovation, and, thus, sustained growth.

For more information on psychological safety, the employee experience, feedback, and other topics relating to psychological safety, check out the links below.

By Tony Tijerino

Tony is a certified HR leader with nearly 7 years of HR management, training and development, and coaching experience. He is also a people and culture content creator, community activist, and consultant dedicated to life-long learning, growth, and the pursuit of personal excellence. Tony possesses an MS in HR Management from Florida International University and has worked in a variety of HR leadership roles for several of the world's most respected organizations. He aspires to share his thoughts and insights related to HR, the nature of work, leadership, and the importance of identifying and pursuing one's personal sources of meaning and satisfaction. Tony's hope is that his writing elicits interesting questions, stimulates conversation, and inspires others to share their stories, strengths, and brightest selves with the world.