How to Create a Psychologically Safe Work Environment

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Leadership Is Language" by L. David Marquet. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What does a psychologically safe work environment look like? How can you encourage an environment of psychological safety?

When a workplace doesn’t feel psychologically safe, employees will hesitate to speak up and participate. Leadership Is Language by L. David Marquet encourages leaders to break down barriers that employees are afraid to destroy themselves.

Find out more on how to create a work environment that’s psychologically safe enough for your employees to participate in.

Building Relationships and Breaking Down Barriers

You must foster a psychologically safe work environment where people feel comfortable sharing their perspectives. While many workplaces encourage workers to take the initiative to participate, Marquet argues that it should be the leader’s responsibility to involve them. This is because workplace hierarchies and the fear of jeopardizing relationships can create barriers to participation. By breaking down these barriers and fostering comfort and strong relationships, your team is more likely to think and perform well.

Creating a Psychologically Safe Workplace

In The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle writes that psychologically safe workplaces have two key components: honest communication and behaviors that let people enjoy a sense of belonging. These behaviors foster a feeling of connection, a sense of future with the organization, and the security to speak up without punishment. Beyond increasing worker participation, cultivating safety in the workplace also strengthens chemistry between workers, encourages them to exceed expectations, and helps them stay connected and support one another during tough situations. 

While Marquet writes that leaders are responsible for encouraging employee participation, other experts argue that employees themselves can break down barriers to participation by fostering psychological safety. In The Fearless Organization, Amy C. Edmonson recommends several ways employees can help coworkers feel psychologically safe: Ask questions about challenges your coworkers may be facing and how you can support them, model vulnerability by acknowledging your mistakes or asking for help, and acknowledge challenges you share as a team.

As a leader, you can break down barriers and foster psychological safety in three ways: 

Reduce power differences. Lower your appearance of superiority and practice vulnerability so people feel comfortable speaking honestly. Voice your real emotions (such as doubt and uncertainty). Similarly, use language that implies you’re doing things with people rather than to or for them. For example, say “Let’s do this differently” instead of “I need you to do this differently.” To further reduce power differences, Marquet recommends that you make yourself more accessible by being around your team more. He argues that the lower the power difference, the less people tend to censor their words.

(Shortform note: While Marquet suggests you do things with rather than for your team, David Coyle argues in The Culture Code that doing small acts of service for your team can make you seem more approachable and promote mutual respect. For example, he suggests ordering lunch for your team or cleaning up shared workspaces. Coyle advises you to not only make yourself more accessible but to reduce a sense of hierarchy among all team members. You can do this by creating “collision-rich” workplaces designed so that team members see and interact with one another more frequently. For example, set up more communal spaces or have your team work in closer proximity to one another. Being in such communal spaces might also make it easier for you to voice your emotions unguardedly around your employees.)

Encourage and observe, rather than judge. Remind people that you want to hear from them. For example, tell them you value their unique perspective, and promise to listen to them without judgment. Similarly, when you give praise, observe rather than judge. Instead of telling them “good job” (which is your personal assessment of good or bad), say how they did a good job. For example: “Thank you for speaking up about the error you noticed in the project yesterday. That will save the team a lot of time.”

Further Tips on How to Encourage Participation and Praise Employees

Once you’ve encouraged people to voice their opinions, as Marquet suggests, experts recommend responding thoughtfully and positively reinforcing their behavior when they do speak up. In The Fearless Organization, Amy C. Edmonson provides several tips on how to respond when employees speak up: Listen attentively, thank them for contributing, provide continuous support, and normalize failure. These moves help people feel comfortable to continue expressing their concerns.

In Nonviolent Communication, Marshall B. Rosenberg adds a layer of specificity to Marquet’s advice on giving nonjudgmental praise. He suggests you mention three things in your praise: what the other person did, what their actions accomplished, and what positive emotion you experienced as a result. This method works better than compliments, Rosenberg explains: Even when compliments are genuine, people find them hard to accept because you’re judging their personal worth rather than their behavior; and people are often self-critical, which causes them to doubt your compliment.

Cultivate trust. Marquet suggests that you should trust your team from the start, rather than expect them to prove themselves first. This is because when you trust them to do something, you encourage them to meet your expectations and be more committed to accomplishing the task than if you didn’t trust them.

(Shortform note: What if your employee’s actions have genuinely caused you to lose some trust in them? The authors of Crucial Conversations suggest you remember that trust isn’t an all-or-nothing concept and that how much you trust someone should change and depend on the situation. For example, you could trust someone to be dedicated to their work but perhaps not to finish their work on time. To rebuild trust in a specific area, describe your concerns tentatively, as an opinion rather than as a fact, so people are more open to listening to you.)

How to Create a Psychologically Safe Work Environment

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Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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