Constant and sudden changes in the labor market and the economy have displaced the solid ground beneath our feet again and again, bringing uncertainty to our work environments. How can we create an organizational environment where employees feel safe and want to stay, despite the uncertainties? Trust, effective communication, and radical transparency are essential for adapting to changes quickly. These factors increase the sense of psychological safety and allow for feelings of reliability and familiarity. Therefore, researchers identify them as key elements of high-performing teams.
The importance of psychological safety in the work environment
Employees in work environments with high levels of psychological safety are more likely to take the initiative to improve processes, products, or services. They are also more effective at sharing information, make fewer mistakes, and report them more often. In addition to the significant behavioral changes, psychological safety correlates positively with satisfaction, commitment, and emotional belonging in the company.
However, to raise the level of psychological safety and reap its benefits, we first need to understand what psychological safety is.
What is psychological safety?
Psychological safety is a psychological construct representing an organizational climate that allows employees to be authentic and act in accordance with themselves without fear that it will negatively affect their self-image, career, or status. It is a set of beliefs about how others will react if an individual exposes themselves by asking questions, seeking feedback, pointing out mistakes, or suggesting a new idea.
Compared to trust — an individual's belief in the reliability, trustworthiness, or competence of a colleague or the team — psychological safety is a dynamic component of organizational culture. Trust is a feeling that, together with other beliefs about individuals in a group, builds a psychologically safe environment.
How to (re)build an environment with a high level of psychological safety?
When it comes to psychological safety, one of the key challenges for strategic HR is how to put it into practice. The first step to ensure psychological safety is to create an attitude of trust and familiarity.
The goal is to create an atmosphere where employees dare to give constructive feedback. We can only talk about psychological safety when employees dare to say what they think. Through that, we address responsibility because we create a sense of commitment among employees and an inner sense of duty towards a promise made to others.
We also discussed the importance of psychological safety at the Quantifly Connect event. In a panel discussion on retaining and maintaining employee engagement, Borut Jeglič, Executive and Leadership Coach, shared how he understands psychological safety by building organizational culture and empowering employees to be engaged.
"When we talk about engagement, we are talking about feelings that we are trying to build within people, and therefore there is no single exercise that will build psychological safety. Psychological safety is a feeling that develops from a series of activities, conversations, and actions. The same applies to trust. We cannot say to someone, 'Trust me!', and then the person will trust us. Trust is also the result of words and actions that instill feelings of trust."
Borut Jeglič, Ujemi znanje
Matej Delakorda, an expert in experiential learning, also addressed the importance of psychological safety. He shared an experiential learning exercise he uses to strengthen psychological safety in companies. The exercise can be used to build trust and, consequently, psychological safety. It is about sharing personal stories in a business context. Each employee shares their weakness and the qualities they have developed from this weakness. The method enables employees to learn each other's qualities. At the same time, they learn how to react and act more effectively when with their colleagues.
"Psychological safety enables the realization of the potential for learning, and creativity and creates space for productive conflict."
Matej Delakorda, Navajo Labs
Transparent communication as a key element of psychological safety
As the above quote by Borut Jeglič suggests, we cannot directly influence employees' feelings of psychological safety. However, one of the elements we can control is communication and the transparency of information within the company. Only when employees are sufficiently informed do they feel safe and empowered to make decisions related to their work. Transparency enhances psychological safety by giving employees stability and a sense of control over what is happening in the company.
Good practice: building trust in Better Meds
The Better Meds team is aware of the importance of psychological safety. At the Quantifly Connect event, Roko Malkoč, Better Meds Business Unit Director, shared how Quantifly has improved trust and, consequently, increased psychological safety in the Better Meds team.
We didn't have a problem with trust when there were 10, or 20 of us. Still, as we grew as an organization in terms of the number of employees, and suddenly grew to 40, 50 employees, we became a bit detached from the main values of our culture."
Roko Malkoč, Better Meds
Throughout the pandemic, the company faced employee disengagement and isolation. Although they communicated a lot, they didn't feel connected.
Measuring the level of psychological safety, autonomy, and social connectedness showed them the current situation. Identifying information flow within teams, potential communication silos, and team roles offered insights into the root of (potential) collaboration problems. After the Quantifly analysis, they realized they needed to return to the basics of trust and collaboration.
Analytics and diagnostics for monitoring psychological safety
As with Better Meds, other organizations nowadays want a clear overview of fluctuations in levels of connectedness, psychological safety, and other organizational culture and climate indicators. This way, they can react immediately to any changes and prevent disengagement or even the departure of key employees.
Most importantly, in addition to monitoring metrics and trends, they should also diagnose the causes of any declines and provide clear guidance on how and where action is needed.
Working on vision, strategy, and organizational culture is a never-ending process of learning and growth. The organizational culture that fosters transparent and honest communication, trust, and a high level of psychological safety for all employees provides the stability that is much needed in unstable VUCA times. A return to the basics and the small steps we take day by day are unleashing the realization of higher efficiency and a more pleasant work environment.