How CEOs Could Create Psychological Safety In The Workplace

Thursday, 15 September 2022

I have spoken with professionals with various backgrounds almost daily in the past fifteen years, either as a friend or in a professional relationship. 

Some of them were unfortunate to work in a toxic workplace, making them unhappy and unproductive.

It reminded me of one forgotten critical aspect of managing people within the organization: creating psychological safety.

Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School, first identified the concept of psychological safety in the workplace in 1999. Since then, she has observed how companies with a trusting workplace perform better than those that fail.

Psychological safety isn't about being nice, she says. It is about giving candid feedback, openly admitting mistakes, and learning from each other. Professor Edmondson argues that this organizational culture is increasingly important in the modern economy.

One key element which is fundamental in creating psychological safety within an organization is a high level of trust between all the stakeholders in an organization. 

Building a high level of trust will always start from the leadership level, in this case, from the very top level, which is the Board of Directors or C-level leaders.

Various research results from leading educational institutions, such as Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, and several others, indicated that within the work environment where trust is built as an essential part of the internal interaction within an organization, employees always understand that they can voice disagreement or admitting they made an (unintentional) mistake without fear of punishment or ostracism. 

Such a condition happens when top leaders can create a safe environment for open discussion, encourage different perspectives during meetings and allow employees to disagree with them for constructive discussions that can lead to innovative ideas or creative problem-solving to come up with solutions.

On the other hand, when psychological safety is missing, fear will always be present, and the team will continue to create needless drama.

Fear harms a company's efforts to achieve optimum productivity and unleashes the potential for success since employees can't be focused or innovative when they fear the negative consequences.

Other research has also found that employees are more likely to experience stress, anxiety, and depression due to their work when psychological safety is low.

How to create more psychological safety In the workplace? 

Here are several ways that CEOs can quickly and consistently do daily:

Introduce coaching as a pre-requisite skill for new leaders.

It happens so often that high-performing employees are promoted solely based on their previous achievements in the technical aspects but rarely consider their ability to act as influential leaders (I wrote about this topic last week). Therefore, please provide them with an opportunity to learn coaching skills as a tool that enables personal development, soft skills development, career growth, and self-development of their team members. When leaders act as coaches, it will be much easier to embrace the idea of creating psychological safety for those they manage directly.

Leaders at all levels should practice two-way communication based on empathy.

To keep employees psychologically safe, good leaders are always aware of the things happening around them and stay abreast of everything in the company. They regularly keep people in the loop regarding upcoming plans and projects, deadlines, and any changes, good or bad. Most importantly, leaders must also show empathy for others to develop two-way communication that is supportive, caring, and trustful. 

Nurture a sense of connectedness between all members of the organization.

Just like a sports team where it is compulsory for each team member to feel that they like one another and are part of a team with a common goal, which is winning a championship, leaders in the corporate world need to build a similar sense of connectedness between all members. Successful companies are those in which the team members feel they are part of something bigger than themselves. They become selfless and put the team's interests above their interests. The mindset would create a sense of connectedness, where WE will always be the priority above ME.

Create a work environment where it's OK to make mistakes.

Making room for errors is another excellent technique to foster psychological safety at work. Making mistakes is essential for the team's development. It's a beneficial and effective component of someone's learning process. Inform all your team members that mistakes are OK as long as they learn the lessons and would not repeat those mistakes. Allow them to learn from their mistakes rather than criticizing or shunning them. Making them aware of this can promote professional development and foster a feeling of psychological safety.

In conclusion, it is essential to understand that companies with a psychologically safe culture benefit from increased employee engagement, employee experience, better job satisfaction, positive perceptions of the leaders, and higher retention rates while reducing absenteeism and employee turnover.

A psychologically safe work environment improves employees' sense of belonging and provides a sense of purpose in the workplace. It will automatically lead to higher motivation and productivity levels throughout the company.

Lastly, psychological safety is also vital in times of crisis because it helps employees deal with sudden changes and uncertainties, especially at this moment when most businesses are trying to rebound from the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the past two years.

As the CEO, one of your responsibilities is to create a psychologically safe workplace for everyone. It's something that you cannot delegate to your subordinates.

Remember that success as a leader has nothing to do with what you achieve for yourself or gain from life. 

Your care for others as their leader is what really matters.