Is Your Workplace 'Psychologically Safe'? Here's How To Find Out
No employee should ever feel like they're walking on eggshells at work. These seven questions can reveal if your workplace is a safe space.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | February 07, 2024
There are times when we are hesitant to voice our opinions, share our ideas or admit our mistakes at work. This happens to the best of us. A recent survey of the American workforce found that 41% of all VPs have a nagging belief that they are underqualified to be handling the responsibilities of their jobs. So, if you ever second-guess yourself at work, you shouldn't worry about it too much. In fact, a healthy dose of self-doubt may even make you a better employee.
But what if you aren't able to communicate at work because you think you'd be laughed at or shut down brutally in front of your colleagues? That's a different story, and it's why career experts everywhere are talking about making workplaces "psychologically safe."
What Is Psychological Safety?
Psychological safety is the unspoken trust within a team that saying what a member truly wants to say, provided it is constructive and helpful in the larger scheme of things, is a risk-free action. There is no fear of being ridiculed or humiliated or fired for speaking your mind within a workplace that protects the psychological safety of its employees.
The simplest way to understand why the concept of psychological safety is important is to look at two hypothetical scenarios:
- A workplace with psychological safety. Imagine you've heard some bad news through the grapevine. In spite of all the hard work you and your team are putting in, a client is unhappy with the work your team is delivering. You share it openly, and although it's not a cheery discussion to have with your boss and colleagues, you put your heads together to come up with a plan to make it right with the client preemptively.
- A workplace without psychological safety. You've heard something similar, but you choose not to share it with your team because you fear being the bearer of bad news could cause your boss (or your colleagues) to lose their temper with you. You decide not to share it, and the team makes no preemptive corrective action. Eventually your team loses the account.
Why Is Everyone Talking About Psychological Safety?
A January 2023 paper published in the Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior gives us a clue why something that seems like it should be baked into every organization is suddenly in the public consciousness.
The review suggests that psychological safety has become more relevant as a result of the rapid shift to remote and hybrid work arrangements during and after the pandemic. Working from home or in dispersed teams poses new challenges for communication, collaboration and coordination, which require high levels of trust and psychological safety. Moreover, remote work can exacerbate feelings of isolation, stress and anxiety among employees, which can undermine their well-being and engagement.
Given how important the concept is in today's rapidly changing workplace, it's crucial to work in an organization that, explicitly or implicitly, upholds the culture of psychological safety.
How Do You Know If Your Workplace Is Psychologically Safe?
There are seven questions you can ask yourself to assess the level of psychological safety in your workplace, based on research:
- If you make a mistake on your team, are you given supportive, helpful and constructive feedback?
- Are you able to bring up problems and tough issues?
- Do people on the team welcome others' opinions and thoughts, even if they are different from their own?
- Are you comfortable taking a risk at work?
- Is it easy to ask other team members for help?
- Do people on the team openly commend your efforts?
- Are your unique skills and talents valued and utilized?
If you answer yes to most of these questions, you likely work in a psychologically safe environment. If you answer no to most of them, you may face some challenges in expressing yourself, learning from feedback and collaborating with others. In that case, you may want to look for ways to improve the psychological safety climate in your team or organization, or consider finding a more supportive workplace.
Although a lot of the responsibility of making a workplace psychologically safe for its employees lies in the hands of the management, understand that it takes effort from everyone in your work environment to make a change. If you'd like to make your workplace more psychologically safe, start the conversation by setting a good example and encouraging others to do the same.
Want to know if your workplace is a psychologically safe environment for you? Take this test to find out: The Psychological Safety Scale
A similar version of this article can also be found on Forbes.com, here.