How to Build a People-First, Fearless Organization with Psychological Safety?

The average person is estimated to spend one-third of their life at work. With so much time spent in our occupations, creating safe, fulfilling, and meaningful work environments is more critical than ever. Employer-employee relationships can be complicated, and psychological safety is essential to facilitating well-being and healthy connections. But what exactly is psychological safety? It is the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for sharing your ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.

In the academic study of psychological safety, Harvard Influencer and Novartis Professor Amy Edmondson authored The Fearless Organization. Amy’s written work is essential and timely in today’s digital age of bold and often divisive behavior. She discusses workplace psychological safety, sharing empirical evidence and efficacy as to why and how it is mission-critical for organizations, leaders, teams, and employees. The recent rise of hybrid and remote teams presents increasing demands for open collaboration, in and outside of the office, across time zones, which relies on psychological safety as an essential interpersonal construct necessary to carry out business strategies. 

Where Does Psychological Safety Fit Into the Workplace?

Psychological safety in the workplace is a multifaceted theory, framework, and construct that occurs at the team level. It is not a stand-alone initiative or happens in stages or phases. Instead, it is a culture built on inclusivity, belonging, diversity, equity, trust, and safety. Fearless organizations are people-centric, permitting them to be human and fallible. Individuals must be able to fail, learn, problem-solve, and collaborate in a place where co-workers and supervisors will not embarrass, reject, or punish them for sharing thoughts and asking questions. Employers encourage employees to take interpersonal risks, report errors, correct course, and problem-solve in this kind of speak-up culture. Built on trust, fearless organizations take the stance of curiosity. 

Company leaders build psychological safety by taking a sincere stance of humility, valuing people for who they are by listening effectively, and genuinely caring about all people. This happens by establishing organizational customs to foster open communication, inviting and acknowledging all voices irrespective of roles. Transformational leadership must influence a climate of trust, develop a speak-up culture, prioritize learning, and embrace mistakes. By being accessible, emotionally and socially intelligent, and embodying humanity, all employees can learn together, catch and verbalize errors, prevent catastrophic mistakes, embrace permission to fail, iterate, and innovate. 

A company that commits to providing a psychologically safe environment must be deliberate about its decision so that the culture spreads across all leaders, teams, and individuals. Creating a fearless workplace requires building cultures and teams at every angle, from top-down, bottom-up, and peer-to-peer. Notably, the organization must express collective accountability and commitment to fostering a fearless lifestyle nurtured over time. It must enable employees to realize their value through persistent, continuous, conscious, and conscientiousness renewal across all teams.

Psychological Safety and Organizational Investment in People.

On the heels of the great resignation, businesses realize that core values are essential to individual employees. Investing in people means embracing a culture of fearlessness. The impacts are broad, determining key performance indicators (KPIs), driving innovation, expanding critical thinking, and supporting creativity, productivity, and collaboration. Research shows that psychological safety facilitates strong employee engagement and ultimate retention while promoting high-performance standards. It also furthers efforts for valuable diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, helping all employees to be themselves without worrying about biases and judgments about their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and any other part of their identity. At the root, psychologically safe organizations establish a solid foundation for employees to seek collaborative solutions to complex business challenges, minimizing anxiety and increasing productivity. All these factors boost competitive edge, agility, and profitability because of employee happiness, a sense of belonging, and career satisfaction.

Part of investing in people is creating a work climate that helps people strike a balance for building cohesive teams and fostering solid social bonds, camaraderie, and connectedness while promoting and stimulating intellectual friction and fierce debates. The priority must be on motivation that inspires participation and places value on employee well-being, input, and collaboration. Furthermore, employees must be able to challenge the status quo without fear of humiliation or embarrassment. They need to feel safe sharing good and bad news, see opportunities to ask for help, feel valued, and know what is expected.

Now more than ever, organizations need to put people first and permit them to be human while treating them equally, with dignity and humanity. Organizations that prioritize diversity, the multiplicity of thought, inclusion, employees’ well-being, morale, and safety will enable confident, motivated, and effective employees.

Where to Start?

Adopt the mantra that successful organizations always aspire to psychological safety despite competing in a volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous (VUCA) and brittle, anxious, nonlinear, and incomprehensible (BANI) world. Establish that the leadership’s responsible for finding opportunities to build safety and trust, incorporating praise, and reinforcing employee radical candor. Take the time to fully understand threats to your organization and embrace opportunities to bring positive change. Work with expert coaches who can carefully guide leadership and teams in establishing a fearless workplace as an essential core value to embody daily. This trusted expert can also educate leadership by digging deeply into the meaning of psychological safety and how it establishes freedom to share thoughts, express concerns, and support every individual across an organization. They can also articulate what psychological safety does not mean; for instance, it isn’t about tolerating every thought that pops up and hoping for the best outcomes. Once a comprehensive understanding of psychological safety is reached, your expert can facilitate honest self-reflection to identify where your organization stands today, ask uncomfortable questions to uncover the climate, and communicate the current realities. This self-study will discover an organization’s path to achieving psychological safety. From this starting point, an actionable plan can be set into motion for a safer, better future.

Recommended Reading

Make Psychological Safety Aspirational: Read Andrew Hill’s article ‘The Art of Encouraging Teams to Be Open’ in the Financial Times on  02/12/23. 

Building a psychologically safe workplace | Amy Edmondson | TEDxHGSE

Meet Jodie, your Culture & Transformation Captain. With over twenty years helping people change, facilitating team discussions, building cultures, designing, implementing and teaching classes, your organization is in good hands.