What is Psychological Safety?#
When we first think about joining an organization, it is normal for us to consider the financial benefits of the position and how it could help further our career. However, what is arguably the most important question to ask ourselves is how being a part of this organization would make us feel.
This should not be underestimated, as it can have an enormous effect on our overall experience and success in the long term—no matter how attractive the financial package or career advancement initially appears. Workplace culture, and how it affects employees, is critical when considering your next career move.
For too long, the workplace culture has encouraged fear and punished mistakes instead of cultivating a sense of safety that encourages productive risk-taking. Fortunately, Amy Edmonson's concept of psychological safety brought this issue to light in 1999 - it’s defined as one’s perception about taking interpersonal risks with confidence rather than anxiously waiting for potential punishment. As we work toward creating more positive and encouraging workspaces, understanding how to foster psychological safety is crucial!
What does Psychological Safety mean for Companies?#
By nature, we are all hesitant to engage in or display behaviors that might lead to punishment. In the workplace, we often fear coming across as incompetent. We see examples of this when individuals are afraid to “ask stupid questions.” In response to this fear, we hesitate to ask for help and are fearful to admit to our mistakes. A psychologically safe environment, however, is one in which individuals feel empowered to ask questions and make mistakes without the fear of being hurt, embarrassed, or punished by their employer.
Even though recent findings have shown that psychological safety has a direct impact on work performance, employers still struggle with providing a psychologically safe environment.
In fact, Google’s “Project Aristotle” found that only 45% of employees across the world described their workplace as being psychologically safe (Google, 2015). When company atmosphere encourages managers to reprimand their employees, companies are doing the exact opposite of what has been proven to drive performance.
Why Company Punishment Occurs#
So, why do they do it then?
The practice of punishment is not a foreign concept and has been occurring in society for centuries. By definition, punishment refers to the procedure of adding or removing aversive stimulus in order to decrease a targeted behavior (Cooper, Heron, Heward, 2007).
Usually, we see punishment showed in the workplace by adding an aversive stimulus after displaying the undesired behavior. For example, an aversive stimulus in the workplace could be a reprimand or threatening statements. We, as a society, believe that the only way to decrease an undesirable behavior is to use punishment. Studies have shown, however, that positive reinforcement is a far better way to increase desired behavior in the long term.
However, an important outcome of punishment that we overlook is how it makes the individual feel. Although it can be effective (but not more effective than positive reinforcement), punishment leaves individuals feeling shamed and fearful. This method does not aid in providing a psychologically safe environment for employees, and thus results in a decrease in long-term performance and employee morale.
What happens when we don’t provide a psychologically safe environment?
With psychological safety playing a crucial role in the success of our teams, it's important to create an environment where employees feel comfortable taking risks. Without this safe atmosphere, we risk reducing feelings of autonomy and purpose- two key ingredients toward long-lasting engagement with their work. Poor mental health can lead to burnout, which could ultimately result in turnover; so providing a nurturing space is paramount for team members' wellbeing and productivity.
In fact, Google’s ‘Project Oxygen’ study determined that one vital trait successful leaders implement is creating inclusive atmospheres - expressing genuine concern for those they manage along with demonstrating empathy towards colleagues which goes beyond the job description itself!
Improving our Own Environments#
How do we foster a psychologically safe environment?
As stated above, employees feel it is most important to ask questions and make mistakes without fear. Employees might ask themselves, “If I do this thing, or ask this question, will I be subjecting myself to an opportunity to be hurt, embarrassed, or punished?”
This simple question drives a great deal of each employee’s behavior in the workplace.
The Real Results of Negative and Positive Enforcements#
When we do not provide a psychologically safe environment, we unintentionally punish autonomy and risk-taking behaviors. Startups rely heavily on these very behaviors in order to drive the success of the company. Without risk-taking, there can be no innovation, and without innovation, the startup will fail.
Employees are far more likely to produce better results and provide loyalty to a company when they feel they are being treated well by that company. Startups can gain the most out of their employees by simply treating them well and fostering a psychologically safe enforcement.
We must provide opportunities for input and questions from each employee. As the saying goes, “there are no stupid questions,” and we must provide an environment that truly shows this belief.
Employers can cultivate an environment of success and improve performance by employing positive reinforcement. Focusing on highlighting successes rather than shortcomings, while giving clear and constructive feedback, encourages the employee to ask questions without fear of repercussions – leading to a safe atmosphere that fosters growth. Measurable behaviors should be defined so employees know what is expected from them.
It’s Not Enough#
Raises, bonuses, and Friday Pizza Parties are no longer enough to aid in employee morale and retention. Employers will find that they receive the most out of their employees when they provide a psychologically safe environment that welcomes questions and views shortcomings as opportunities for growth.
Let’s work together as companies, employees, and coworkers to start building this new standard of environment for our work places, let’s build a new standard.
Simply Put: Money matters. But, happiness matters most.