The “secret” to a thriving work environment
“When psychological safety is
present, people are able to speak up
with work-relevant content.”
—Amy Edmondson, Ph.D.
By F. Scott Addis, CPCU, CRA, ACRA, TRA, ASA
“Psychological safety” is a trending corporate buzzword that shows up regularly on social media as employees share their stories and feelings about the workplace. It has been called the “secret” to a thriving work environment—one in which individuals feel accepted, respected, and supported. Rough Notes readers may have read about it in a February 2023 leaedership column by Meg McKeen, CIC.
So, what exactly is “psychological safety” in the workplace?
In a 1999 Harvard Business Review article, Amy Edmondson, Ph.D., said, “Psychological safety means an absence of interpersonal fear. When psychological safety is present, people are able to speak up with work-relevant content.”
In the article, Edmondson elaborated that a psychologically safe workplace is characterized by trust, openness, and mutual respect among team members. Employees in such an environment feel comfortable speaking up, sharing ideas, and engaging in healthy debate. This fosters a sense of belonging and encourages collaboration, ultimately leading to increased innovation and better problem-solving.
Google’s research on team dynamics further emphasizes its significance. Their study, called “Project Aristotle,” found that psychological safety was the most critical factor in high-performing teams. When team members feel safe to take risks, ask questions, and make mistakes without fear of humiliation or retribution, they are more likely to contribute their unique perspectives and challenge the status quo. This creates a culture of continuous learning and drives innovation.
“Organizations can lean on psychological safety as a source of competitive advantage,” said Dr. Gabrielle Lopiano, a management professor at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management. “When employees expend their cognitive resources on futile things like suppressing their ideas or feedback, managing others’ impressions, or worrying about failure, they are less immersed in their work. Cultivating a psychologically safe work environment removes these psychological burdens and unleashes their full potential, both individually and collectively. In turn, companies reap the benefits in the form of improved satisfaction, reduced turnover, and superior decision making, innovation, and efficiency.”
What are some indicators that your employees don’t feel psychologically safe?
Micki, a personal lines advisor with a large agency in the Northwest, recently reported that she had a significant barrier in implementing the tools and processes learned in a Beyond Insurance program. She said, “I won’t be able to practice the risk management process at all. My organization takes some feedback but only from its most seasoned producers. It’s been a huge barrier and issue for years, which is why we have a large turnover rate.”
Gracee, an account manager for a medium-sized firm in the Midwest, asked four weeks in advance if she could take a day off to attend a family event. Her manager told her, “No. We have too much work for you to do.” Gracee is now afraid to ask for time off and is actively seeking a different job.
Alex, a producer with three years’ experience, asked Beyond Insurance, “I want to differentiate myself from my competition and implement the risk management process. But my agency doesn’t want to change and try something new. What should I do?” He subsequently left his agency for a job in a different industry.
What’s the common theme behind these comments? They do not work in “psychologically safe workplaces.”
- Let’s look at some indicators that your employees may not be experiencing psychological safety:
- Employees show reluctance to ask questions or participate actively during meetings.
- Employees hesitate to take responsibility for their mistakes or readily blame others when errors occur. They fear being humiliated, criticized, or punished.
- The team avoids engaging in challenging conversations or addressing sensitive topics.
- Executives and team leaders dominate discussions during meetings, limiting input from other team members.
- Employee feedback is infrequent or completely missing. Employees seldom, if ever, seek it out.
- Employees rarely go beyond their job descriptions to support their colleagues.
- Employees refrain from seeking help from one another when they need assistance.
- Employees lack accountability, and the tendency to shift blame from one person to another becomes prevalent.
- There is a lack of healthy disagreement or diverse perspectives among team members.
- Employees have limited personal connections with each other, focusing solely on professional interactions.
- Your organization is experiencing a high turnover rate.
Paige Allen Harris, principal at Flatlands Jessup Insurance Group in Washington, North Carolina, says that they make employee input a priority and work diligently to create an environment of problem solving where no one will fear retribution. However, she stresses the importance of psychological safety: “We certainly wouldn’t want a team member to make a mistake, try to cover it up, and then create an E&O exposure. One of the tools we incorporated this month was the Gallup Q12 Employee Engagement Survey. The results were surprising and reiterated to us that owners and employees don’t always hear the same message.”
Creating a psychologically safe workplace
Leadership responsibility extends beyond holding people accountable for performance metrics. It involves creating an environment where employees feel comfortable and encouraged to take risks. Here are eight strategies to cultivate psychological safety in the workplace:
- Demonstrate active engagement. Show your team that you value their input by being fully present during meetings. Maintain eye contact and avoid distractions like checking emails or messages. Actively listen, ask questions to understand their ideas, and foster an environment where speaking up is accepted and encouraged.
- Display understanding. Try to understand and consider your team members’ perspectives. Summarize what they say to ensure that you grasp their point of view. Use body language such as nodding and leaning forward to demonstrate engagement. Be aware of your facial expressions to avoid unintentionally signaling disapproval.
- Focus on solutions, not blame. Instead of looking for someone to blame when things go wrong, emphasize finding solutions. Frame questions around improving in the future rather than dwelling on past mistakes. Encourage collaborative language and transform responsibility into a collective effort rather than singling out individuals.
- Cultivate self-awareness. Encourage self-awareness among team members by sharing your work preferences, communication style, and recognition preferences. Create an environment where individuals can express their unique personalities and work styles openly. Use behavioral assessments to foster self-awareness and respect for different preferences.
- Address negativity promptly. If team members exhibit negative behavior towards peers, address it directly. Communicate that negativity is not tolerated. Allowing negativity to persist can harm psychological safety, as it may become contagious and create a toxic work environment.
- Involve the team in decision-making. Actively seek input, thoughts, and feedback from your team members. This inclusivity makes employees feel valued and involved, enhances psychological safety, and leads to better outcomes. After a decision is made, explain the reasoning behind it and acknowledge the contributions of team members.
- Embrace feedback. Demonstrate that you’re open to feedback. Encourage your team to provide input and challenge your perspectives. Foster an environment where healthy conflict is welcomed, leading to better decisions and greater accountability. Set an example by taking interpersonal risks and sharing and learning from your own failures.
- Support and advocate for your team. Champion your team’s personal and professional development by providing support and resources. Share their work with others in senior leadership to increase visibility and recognition. Acknowledge and credit them for contributions, creating a sense of appreciation and motivation within the team.
The Predictive Index 2022 State of Talent Optimization Report revealed that 25% of companies identified psychological safety as the primary driver of employee retention. Fostering a psychologically safe workplace leads to enhanced employee performance, while also reducing the likelihood of turnover among engaged and secure employees.
Ollis/Akers/Arney Insurance & Business Advisors, an employee-owned agency (ESOP) in Springfield, Missouri, actively promotes a psychologically safe work environment. Employees are encouraged to offer practical insights and suggestions, as everyone benefits if work is done more effectively or efficiently.
Pamela Hamilton, group benefits account manager and supervisor, says, “The ESOP provides a positive impact on our psychological safety, because each one of us has a stake in the overall performance of the organization. This encourages longevity in our careers and gives us an equal voice as well as accountability along the way.”
Beth Kensinger, lead commercial risk account manager, adds, “The ESOP culture creates a safer, more cohesive environment. With previous employers, it was commonplace to hear employees declaring ‘that’s not my job’ when faced with challenges; I don’t hear that phrase here because it’s our job as a team to move challenges forward.”
Given the pace of change and amid a fiercely competitive environment, forward-thinking organizations are actively taking substantial measures to cultivate a productive and innovative workforce. Their goal is to create an environment where individuals feel secure in voicing their ideas, embracing challenges, taking risks, and showing vulnerability without fear of adverse consequences.
By embracing psychological safety, organizations can unlock the full potential of their workforce and thrive in an ever-evolving business landscape.
Scott Addis is CEO of Beyond Insurance and an industry leader. His agency was recognized by Rough Notes magazine as a Marketing Agency of the Month, he was a Philadelphia finalist for Inc. magazine’s “Entrepreneur of the Year” award, and was selected as one of the “25 Most Innovative Agents in America.”
Beyond Insurance is a consulting firm that offers leadership training, cultural transformation, and talent and tactical development for enlightened professionals who are looking to take their organization to the next level. To learn more about Beyond Insurance, contact Scott