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How to cultivate a psychologically safe workplace

To feel psychologically safe at work, staff must be free to take risks without fear of backlash. We explore how to nurture a trust culture in the office.

4 June 2024 · Fiona Zerbst

How to cultivate a psychologically safe workplace

Creating an office environment where trust and confidence flourish is vital if team members are to perform at their best.

Psychologist Quinton Williams defines psychological safety as it applies in the workplace, and how to foster it.  

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What defines psychological safety?

There are three critical elements to psychological safety – minimal fear, appropriate reward, and systems that foster resilience in teams. These factors, says Williams, allow you to express your individuality in the workplace without fear of punishment. 

“You can voice your opinion, admit to an honest mistake, reach out for support, and build trusting relationships without worrying about being judged,” he adds.

A leader can instil psychological safety in their team by being predictable and consistent, reinforcing the message that staff members may take risks, fail on the job (provided that they learn from it), and share ideas freely, Williams notes.

“Such teams are usually open to diverse viewpoints and resilient enough to take a creative or innovative approach to a task,” he points out. Staff who are empowered to “show up” in the workplace generally feel needed and know they’re contributing something of value.

How to boost employee engagement

The SCARF model, devised by brain researcher, author, and speaker David Rock, offers managers a method to help employees feel more secure, says Williams.

This widely used model is invaluable for getting the best out of your staff, he notes.

SCARF stands for five “domains” of human social experience, which are also relevant to the workplace:

  • Status – feeling affirmed and having a sense of purpose in a team
  • Certainty – having a sense of predictability and transparency in the workplace
  • Autonomy – having maximum control over your work, with the ability to take initiative
  • Relatedness – feeling part of the team, or “in-group
  • Fairness – feeling a sense of equity, with clear ground rules and consistent rewards

Leaders should motivate their staff members through constructive feedback, says Williams. Conflict doesn’t have to be avoided if staff members know that issues will be resolved fairly, and disagreements managed positively.

However, negative behaviour – for example, bullying a colleague or consistently underperforming at work – should not be tolerated.

Colleagues also don’t always have to be “nice” or agree on everything. “Being inauthentic is at odds with the trust at the heart of a team,” notes Williams.

Tips for creating a psychologically safe workplace

It’s key to create an environment of mutual trust and respect that allows everyone to fully contribute without fearing shame or retribution, says Williams.

He offers some tips for creating a safe space for employees.

  • Be consistent. Psychological safety is about a sustained effort to build trust and understanding. There’s no quick way to make people feel safe.
  • Build personal connections. Create opportunities for team members to bond and get to know one another outside work.
  • Offer recognition. Recognise and reward good work, and encourage employees to speak up, take risks, and bring new perspectives.
  • Don’t shame people for failing. Mistakes happen and are learning opportunities, not an excuse to punish or criticise employees. Review errors without blame or judgement, and move on.
  • Promote inclusivity. Call out bias or disrespect. It should be clear such behaviours aren’t tolerated within the team.
  • Let leaders set the tone. Team members need to see their leaders being vulnerable, asking questions, learning, and trying to understand.
  • Allow team members to think outside the box. Employees should be allowed moments to “play”, express themselves, and be curious.
  • Ensure processes are transparent. Have protocols in place that make it “safe” for staff to escalate issues or concerns.

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