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Feeling Safe to Speak Up: The Keys to Cultivating Psychological Safety at Work

July 9, 2024
Guest Blog

Have you been on a team that avoided discussing a difficult topic? Or have you ever hesitated to share an idea because of how others might react? Even senior leaders experience these threats to their psychological safety when working with overly critical stakeholders and peers, or when working on poorly functioning teams. 

Psychological safety is the feeling of being comfortable taking interpersonal risks at work. These risks include speaking up, sharing ideas, and admitting to mistakes without fear of being judged, embarrassed, or punished. Psychological safety is the foundation for information sharing, learning, collaboration, commitment, and performance. 

If you want to cultivate psychological safety in both individuals and teams, consider the following practices:   

Leader Practices Cultivate Psychological Safety in Individuals

The top drivers of psychological safety for individuals are role clarity, peer support, autonomy, and a leader who brings out the best in them. Some leaders are naturally better at building relationships with their team members than others. However, the behavioral Strategies (i.e. skills and management practices leaders can develop), are more important for psychological safety.

Leaders leverage three key Strategies to help individuals build psychological safety:

  • Focus and Align. Leaders who build great Focus and Align practices provide clarity to their team members. When individuals understand their role and have the resources needed to get their job done, they're more confident in speaking up about tasks or challenges.
  • Empower. Leaders that build great Empower practices provide autonomy to their team members to stretch and develop them. When individuals are empowered to make decisions, they are more likely to take the initiative, speak up, and suggest new approaches.
  • Motivate. Leaders who build great Motivate practices inspire Purpose, provide Support, and Involve team members in shaping their workplace. When an individual feels their job has meaning, is encouraged to take ownership, and is supported by others, they are more likely to trust others, take risks, and share their ideas, concerns, and mistakes. 

Team Alignment Cultivates Team Psychological Safety

Team-level psychological safety is a shared belief by team members that they can safely take risks, speak up, and make mistakes. The individual-level drivers of psychological safety are still important. However, it is more important for team members to feel that their peers and organization are supportive and that the team has a learning orientation. In our research with the Team Alignment Survey we find that teams aligned in four areas feel more psychologically safe:

  • People: Teams with good People alignment practices are supportive of each other, inclusive of differences, and focus on building each other’s skills. This results in strong peer-to-peer support and a team learning orientation, which enables team members to feel more comfortable taking risks as they experiment, fail, and learn.
  • Process. Teams with good Process alignment practices build ways of working that help them communicate, resolve conflict, and empower team decisions. This results in better communication and clarity, which enables team members to communicate concerns without negative consequences.
  • Perspective of Stakeholders. Teams with good Perspective alignment practices proactively engage and communicate with their stakeholders to build organizational support. This results in more empowerment and resources, which enables freedom to act, greater innovation, and experimentation. 
  • Purpose. Teams with good Purpose alignment practices build greater clarity and accountability. This results in less confusion and ownership, which enables greater collaboration.

Individual- and team-level psychological safety hinge on similar core principles of clarity, support, and autonomy. Organizations can build these capabilities to help leaders and teams feel more psychologically safe by:

  • Providing insight to leaders on the Strategies they use to focus, empower, and motivate their team members. Tools like the Growth Leader Assessment help leaders gain insight into these practices. 
  • Providing insight to teams on their alignment practices. Tools like the Team Alignment survey  Team Alignment Survey benchmark team practices versus other global teams to identify improvement areas.
  • Conducting workshops on these skills to help leaders and teams learn and practice new habits to help them perform at a higher level.

What Cultivating Psychological Safety Looks Like

Leaders and teams can both cultivate psychological safety. For example, a senior leader undergoing coaching recently used insights about his leadership practices to understand how he was impacting the psychological safety of his team members. His strength was in identifying and driving strategy and innovations in the organization. However, he was not empowering his team in these areas and had few people involved in strategy formulation and innovation identification. As a result, the team rarely disagreed with him or spoke up about the strategy and innovations he was driving. After identifying these practice gaps, he changed how he involved the team and how the team made decisions. As a result, the team took greater ownership of the strategy and innovation pipeline. Their commitment led to more frank conversations and improved psychological safety. With this enhanced insight, the leader built an environment where his team felt safe to speak up, share ideas, and drive innovation and success.

Get Started Today

Cultivating Psychological Safety at work is something every leader can do. Consider these reflection questions to identify how you can get started:

  • Do my team members understand their role and have the resources they need to get their job done?
  • Do I provide sufficient autonomy to my team members to make decisions important to their role?  
  • Do I help my team members find meaning in their work and take ownership? 
  • Do I ensure my team members get the support they need from me and others to do their job well? 
  • Do members of my team support & include each other, and build on each other’s skills?
  • Have the members of my team defined ways of working that help them communicate, resolve conflict, and empower team decisions?
  • Do the members of my teams proactively engage and communicate with their stakeholders to build organizational support for their work?
  • Do the members of my team proactively improve clarity and accountability?

About the Author

James D. Eyring PhD.

Dr. James Eyring is CEO of Organisation Solutions and Lead Science Advisor for Produgie. James has over 30 years of experience assessing, coaching, and developing executives and their teams. With a PhD in Industrial / Organizational Psychology, James is actively involved in research on leadership, growth capabilities, and potential. He has taught Undergraduate and Graduate level courses and published in academic and practitioner publications. Most recently he authored book chapters on Strategic Workforce Planning and Innovations in Assessment in SIOP’s Professional Practice Series.

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About Organisation Solutions

Since 2000, Organisation Solutions has helped leaders, teams, and companies build the mindsets and capabilities required for sustained performance and growth. With a network of more than 300+ consultants and coaches, the company delivers innovative and science-based assessment, coaching, development, and team services to rapidly growing and transforming businesses. Organization Solutions clients span the globe and include leading multinationals such as BHP, J&J, DuPont, Microsoft, Prudential, and Schneider Electric and Asia-based multinationals including SMBC, Gojek, and GIC.

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