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Psychological Safety in the Workplace: Your Top 8 Questions Answered

Learn actionable steps to fostering a culture of psychological safety in your organization

Posted by Ann Snook on March 2nd, 2022

Google is one of the largest, most well-known companies in the world, with many people utilizing at least one of its services or products every day. But, according to an investigative article by Bloomberg, the company’s employees have become plagued with mental health issues due to a lack of psychological safety at work.

The leadership of one team frequently makes racist, sexist, ageist, and insensitive comments, allege some former and current employees. This toxic work environment at Google, and the failure of the company’s HR team to take corrective action, have led employees to take extended mental health leave or even resign.

This team now struggles to recruit internally due to its psychologically unsafe reputation. As more professionals learn about this, the toxicity will cause Google to miss out on brilliant candidates.

If your company culture doesn’t prioritize employees’ psychological safety, you’re putting your organization at risk. When employees feel unheard and unsafe, you’ll find high employee churn, more HR incidents, lawsuits, and lost business come next.

In this article, we’ve answered 8 common questions about how and why to foster psychological safety in your organization so you can prevent costly incidents and protect your employees.

 

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1. What are the risk factors for a psychologically unsafe workplace?

 

One of the biggest risk factors, says Catherine Mattice, founder of Civility Partners, is an “us vs. them” mentality.

This can be caused by a lack of diversity, where the majority of employees are from the same age group, race, gender, or religion. The larger group might discourage minority employees from expressing their true personalities, exclude them from social interactions, or not give them credit for their ideas.

Or, if you have a lot of tenured employees, they could cause a psychologically unsafe environment for younger, newer employees by refusing to listen to their ideas or accept change.

In addition, says Mattice, bureaucracy is a major risk factor because it “makes it really hard for the target to report [wrongdoing] because there’s maybe 20 steps in order to report the behavior.” Slow, drawn-out investigations give the bad actor time to continue mistreating their victim.

Here are some other aspects of your company culture that could contribute to poor psychological safety:

Credit: Catherine Mattice

 

2. How do remote work environments impact psychological safety?

 

With the new world of remote work in full swing, company culture, access to resources, and employee satisfaction are key to success and retention. If your company is fully remote, Mattice says, you’re more at risk of a toxic work environment. “People can hide behind [the computer screen],” she explains.

Similar to cyberbullying in personal contexts, bad actors might feel emboldened to harass or demean others when they can type it through an email rather than seeing their victim face to face. Harassers also face a lower risk of other employees witnessing their bad behavior and intervening.

Another reason psychological safety may wane in a remote workplace? “We’re also all stressed out and burnt out” due to pandemic stress.

The lack of bonding and connection with colleagues, blurred lines between home and work life, and understaffing due to the Great Resignation create a stressful environment. When employees feel tired and overworked, they’re more likely to lash out or shift blame.

To promote a psychologically safe remote workplace, try these approaches:

  • Plan team bonding exercises and events (e.g. virtual happy hours, bowling, Zoom trivia)
  • Promote work/life balance
  • Require annual training on harassment, bullying, discrimination, and psychological safety
  • Encourage employees to speak up if they’ve experienced incivility via email, phone call, or other interactions

 

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3. How can I encourage managers and executives to embrace psychological safety?

 

“Great results come when teams feel psychologically safe to say things that are most critical to the business—and to each other,” says Henryk Krajewski, Principal and Founder of Worxera.

In other words, if your C-suite wants the company to evolve, grow, and find ongoing financial success, they need to embrace and endorse a culture of psychological safety.

When employees feel they can share ideas and criticisms, you can tap into the deepest depths of their creativity. More productive, creative employees means more innovative projects and products that will set you apart from competitors.

Mattice also suggests sharing employee survey data (as described below) with leadership. Executives might think your company culture is fine, but hard data helps “create buy-in that there’s a problem.”

Share employees’ open-ended reflections from your survey to tap into executives’ empathy. Hearing employees’ personal stories and concerns should get the C-suite on board with psychological safety initiatives.

 

4. What should I include in my company’s psychological safety training?

 

Psychological safety training’s ultimate goal is teaching employees how to advocate for themselves and others in the workplace. Give employees the tools and information they need to recognize and handle victimization and avoid victimizing others.

Mattice explains that your training module for employees should include different lessons than the one for managers.  Her suggestions for topics to cover include how to:

Managers

  • Set clear expectations of their employees for behavior
  • Recognize red flags and address incivilities before they escalate into full-blown bullying/harassment/discrimination/exclusion
  • Review and coach employees on not just performance, but behavior as well
  • Create a positive work environment on their team
  • Be transparent and communicative when sharing decisions and information with employees

 

Employees

  • Manage conflicts with coworkers in a healthy way
  • Communicate clearly, constructively, and positively
  • Treat others with empathy
  • Practice self-care to prevent burnout
  • Manage stress to avoid lashing out

 

Psychological safety

5. What are the signs that an employee feels psychologically unsafe? How should you approach them if they haven’t reported an incident?

 

You can’t always immediately tell when an employee doesn’t feel safe at work. They might put on a happy face to avoid retaliation or making waves.

However, Mattice says that they might exhibit these signs if they’re not being treated well:

  • Lower productivity and/or quality of work
  • Bad mood; not acting “like themselves”
  • Absenteeism or tardiness
  • Isolating or pulling back from teammates and work friends
  • Signs of physical distress (e.g. headaches, stomach aches, sweating, not eating, shaking)

 

When approaching an employee about reporting misconduct, be discreet. Ask if they would like their manager or HR to help informally settle the issue rather than pursuing a formal investigation. Remind them of how to find and use your organization’s reporting channels (e.g. hotline, webform).

Most importantly, reassure them that retaliation isn’t tolerated and that they can report anonymously if they still feel uncomfortable.

 

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6. How can I change my company culture to be psychologically safe?

 

There is no one answer to this question. Your plan for promoting psychological safety depends on your organization’s size, values, mission, and work environment.

However, HR consultant and author Sharlyn Lauby says one step every company can take is building a culture of trust. “Trust is about others. As in, ‘I trust you.’ Psychological safety is about us. As in, ‘Everyone is trusting here. So, I can be myself.’,” she explains.

Encouraging mutual trust and respect between employees can prevent DEI incidents. Building the same relationship between employees and employer protects you from potential lawsuits and non-compliance consequences.

To create a more trusting environment where employees feel free to be themselves, Lauby suggests organizations:

  • Help employees become more self-aware (using personality surveys, etc.) so they can identify their own feelings and situations that aren’t acceptable to them
  • Offer more than one channel where employees can offer cultural feedback (e.g. survey, comment box)
  • Recognize and praise employees who ask questions, offer up ideas, and have positive interactions with others
  • Encourage managers to own up to their mistakes
  • Provide psychological safety training where employees learn how to promote this for themselves and their colleagues

 

RELATED: Your Complete Guide to Establishing an Ethical Culture

 

7. How can I survey employees to determine if they feel psychologically safe at work?

 

To get a feel for the level of psychological safety in your organization, create a survey with a mix of open-ended and scaled (1-5 or “disagree strongly” to “agree strongly”) questions. This combination will help you identify aspects of your company culture that you need to work on and the ways you’re already protecting employees’ psychological safety.

Ask employees to rate their experiences by asking:

  • How comfortable are you being your true self at work?
  • Do you feel safe confronting someone when they say/do something that hurts you?
  • How good is your manager at resolving conflicts on the team?

 

For open-ended questions, ask questions like:

  • If you are not currently getting everything you need to do your best at your job, what is missing and from whom?
  • Do you think leadership is transparent enough? Why or why not?
  • What is your relationship with your teammates like?

 

Mattice suggests surveying and interviewing a group of randomly selected employees to get the most representative picture of your company’s status.

Most importantly, don’t conduct your surveys or interviews and call it a day. Analyze your data to see not only what employees’ concerns are, but also who raised them.

For instance, do men feel safe confronting their coworkers but women don’t? Do employees of color feel less safe being themselves than white employees? Use this information to update your policies and training to create a safer, more equitable environment for all employees.

 

Find your culture's problem areas before it's too late

Surveying your employees about your company culture can reveal risks you’d never uncover otherwise. Use our free cultural assessment template to get started.

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8. Should psychological safety be brought up to candidates during the interview process?

 

Yes.

According to Mattice, interviews are the perfect time to gauge whether a potential employee could pose a risk to others’ psychological safety if they’re hired. This can help you weed out candidates who might cause incidents of bullying, harassment, discrimination, and other exclusive behaviors.

“Create some interview questions around [their] ability to create psychological safety around them,” Mattice suggests. “Ask them questions about empathy and respect.”

Try questions like:

  • “How do you apply empathy to everyday tasks in your current role?”
  • “Have you ever felt psychologically unsafe at work? What did you do?”
  • “What would you do if an employee came to you saying they felt bullied/harassed/discriminated against/otherwise unsafe at work?”
  • “How do you build trust with coworkers?”

 

For managerial positions, you could also ask:

  • “If an employee failed at a task, how would you help them move forward?”
  • “What do you do if an employee offers a dissenting view to yours on a project?”

 

If a candidate shuts down during these types of questions, gets defensive, or suggests that victims should “get over” incivility, remove them from your short list. You might miss out on strong talent, but it’s not worth unwell employees, lawsuits, or a bad corporate reputation.

 

RELATED: The Key Ingredient for Preventing Harassment and Bullying in the Workplace

 

A psychologically safe workplace comes with a myriad of benefits, from more productive employees to a better corporate reputation. But even more important are the things it can help you avoid.

“Psychologically safety is the difference between [an employee] speaking up at work — and staying silent and becoming a whistle-blower,” says author and behavioral scientist Lindsay Kohler.

Whether an employee is being harassed, witnesses a coworker committing fraud, or “spot[s] the cracks” in the company’s operations, if they don’t feel safe bringing it up to leadership or HR, the issues will continue to escalate.

Fines, lawsuits, bad press. Without psychological safety, you can’t effectively prevent these negative consequences.

 


Ann Snook
Ann Snook

Marketing Writer

Ann is a marketing writer at i-Sight Software. She writes about issues related to investigations of fraud, employee misconduct, corporate security, Title IX, ethics & compliance and more.

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