Psychological Safety in the Workplace in 4 Easy Steps

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What difference does psychological safety in the workplace make? How do you know when you have it?

Charles Duhigg, in his book Smarter Faster Better, argues that creating a norm of psychological safety in the workplace is crucial for productivity. What is psychological safety, and what are the steps to create it? Duhigg provides a practical guide.

Read on to discover how to achieve psychological safety in the workplace.

What Is Psychological Safety?

An important aspect of organizational productivity is building productive teams. In a team situation, making sure you’re personally productive isn’t always enough for you to achieve your goals. The team as a whole needs to be productive. But how can you build a productive team?

Research suggests that the membership of a team is not all that important when it comes to productivity. The “who” doesn’t really matter. Instead, a team’s productivity is influenced by the norms that its members adopt

Norms are the unspoken and unwritten rules that we abide by. Studies have shown that certain norms are more likely to foster productive teamwork. In particular, creating a norm of psychological safety in the workplace is crucial. 

If a team is psychologically safe, its members feel that they can speak their minds and share their ideas without fear of retribution. They feel that mistakes won’t be harshly criticized, and that dissenting views won’t be silenced.

Creating an atmosphere of psychological safety in the workplace is usually the onus of a team’s leader. The leader must ensure that two conditions are in place:

  • All team members equally participate in discussions.
  • Team members are sensitive to the emotions of their colleagues and acknowledge these emotions appropriately.

Team leaders can create these conditions by modeling appropriate behaviors themselves. For instance, if a team member has been particularly quiet in a group discussion, they can encourage that person to speak and thus participate equally. Likewise, the leader should monitor and respond to team members’ emotions. Leading by example will hopefully allow psychological safety to flourish.

Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace

When a team is psychologically safe, the members of the team believe that they can share their views and take risks without having to fear retaliation or rejection. 

Psychologically safe teams have a culture that encourages participation from every member and discourages needless or overly harsh criticism or judgment. People don’t face punishment or humiliation for sharing their views, even if these views go against the general group consensus. Debate is encouraged rather than avoided. Such a culture requires respect and trust between the members of the team.

To create a culture of psychological safety in the workplace, two key ingredients are required.

Ingredient #1: Equal Participation

During meetings and other group situations, each team member should speak for around the same amount of time. Domination by one person or just a handful of people should be avoided. This equal participation helps team members to feel that they have an equal voice and affirms that their opinions are of equal importance to those of their team members. In turn, this will help team members to feel secure, valued, and psychologically safe within the group.

There is one caveat to this ingredient: equal participation won’t create psychological safety in the workplace if nobody listens to their fellow team members. The person speaking needs to feel like everyone wants to hear their contribution. They shouldn’t be made to feel that people are listening begrudgingly or out of mere politeness. Team members need to be fully committed to both sharing their own thoughts and listening to everyone else’s.

Ingredient #2: Social Sensitivity

“Social sensitivity” is the ability to read others’ emotions using cues such as tone of voice and body language. 

In a team setting, social sensitivity is an important way of monitoring people’s emotional reactions to discussions, proposals, and each other. It enables teams to detect whether any members are feeling frustrated or are having misgivings about the direction of the team’s work. 

These members can then be encouraged to voice how they’re feeling. They will feel that their opinions are valued and their emotions respected, thus increasing their psychological safety.

Social sensitivity can also help team members to monitor each other’s general emotional wellbeing. If someone seems upset or preoccupied, the other members of the team will know that they need to check in with this person. This will make the upset person feel seen, valued, and cared for, again increasing their psychological safety within the group.

The Leader’s Role in Creating a Safe Space

The most important player in creating psychological safety in the workplace is the team leader. If you’re in this position, you need to quite literally lead by example. You need to encourage others to engage in behaviors that promote psychological safety by modeling these behaviors yourself. 

Firstly, you need to ensure that every team member has had an equal opportunity to participate in discussions. If certain members have been quieter during a meeting, you should directly ask them what their perspective is. Refrain from simply allowing the loudest team members to dominate the discussion. This will prevent equal engagement.

Secondly, you should make sure that team members feel listened to by discussing their ideas and answering their questions. A simple technique that demonstrates that you’ve been listening is to summarize what members have said after they’ve finished speaking. 

Thirdly, you must encourage social sensitivity by monitoring and acknowledging all team members’ emotions. You also need to react respectfully and sensitively to these emotions. Don’t brush off team members’ emotions or ignore them outright.

Finally, you should prevent damaging norms from developing by refusing to engage in these norms yourself. For example, never interrupt others when they’re speaking. This may create an interruption norm that leads to team members feeling disrespected and not listened to.

By modeling these behaviors, you will encourage your team to follow suit. This will enable a psychologically safe culture to flourish. Your team will work together more effectively and will become more productive.

4 Steps Leaders Can Take

What steps should leaders take to create psychological safety in the workplace?

  • Make sure that every team member has had the chance to participate equally in group work—and try to redress any balance issues as they emerge. 
  • Ensure that every member of the team feels they’ve been listened to by discussing their ideas and answering their questions. 
  • Model social sensitivity by monitoring and acknowledging the emotions of your team members.
  • Prevent damaging norms from developing by refusing to engage in these norms yourself—lead by example. 

What is psychological safety, and how can you create it? Now you have answers that serve as a starting point for bringing this productivity booster on board.

Psychological Safety in the Workplace in 4 Easy Steps

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  • Why becoming more productive isn’t about working longer hours or constantly pushing yourself to do more
  • The 8 principles for improving productivity
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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She has always appreciated nonfiction, especially about history, politics, and ideas. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. As a former intelligence analyst and a teacher of critical thinking skills, Elizabeth enjoys analyzing arguments on all sides of an issue. Her nonfiction preferences include theology, science, and philosophy. She studies the intersection of these three in pursuit of the highest truths. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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