Handling remote teams, new working practices, employee anxiety and ever-evolving regulations have forced business leaders to consider and reassess their organisation’s culture and priorities, and how to achieve the best from, and for, their staff while emerging from a global pandemic while navigating economic uncertainty.
The term ‘psychological safety’ has, until recently, largely existed in the realms of business theory, more likely to be found in a textbook or a lecture than in the boardroom, and is rarely at the top of to-do lists for business owners. The phrase was coined in 1999 by Prof. Amy Edmonson of Harvard Business School, who quantified it as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes”. She suggested that, beyond making people feel good, a psychologically safe business environment generates positive business outcomes; when teams felt comfortable enough to challenge leaders and report mistakes, they proved more successful in achieving their goals.
Creating such an environment requires demystifying the concept of psychological safety, and translating it into approaches that management and staff can relate to and put into practice. In the past, conversations about safety at work have related to physical safety, or perhaps functional safety; now, the conversation is turning towards feeling safe psychologically. Although an unfamiliar, and often intimidating-sounding, term to many, the fundamental concepts are simple: how can a business craft an environment where staff feel safe to speak up, to voice opinions, fashioning an environment where no idea is belittled, and everyone’s opinion has value? When team members are emotionally secure in the workplace, research shows they are more engaged and productive. After all, the most successful business leaders know that the best ideas emerge from different perspectives; more points of view will enrich creative processes, leading to ideas that would not have emerged otherwise.
When protected by such a working culture, employees have more opportunities to step up and self-lead, working with a purpose aligned with that of the company that provides them with such security. In this environment, there is less need for external motivation and the ability to innovate is heightened. In the post-Covid landscape, resilient teams will be built on role clarity, confidence and agility, with innovation powered by psychological safety essential for business success.
A psychologically safe workplace can lead to enhanced efficiency, productivity and employee engagement. Small steps taken now – ensuring all employees’ views are heard and respected, and providing constructive and supportive feedback and opportunities – can reap significant benefits for all businesses going forward.
The contents of this article are meant as a guide only and are not a substitute for professional advice. The authors accept no responsibility for any action taken, or refrained from, as a result of the material contained in this document. Specific advice should be obtained before acting or refraining from acting, in connection with the matters dealt with in this article.