3 Ways Psychological Safety Improves Creativity, Communication, and Culture

Has this latest trend made it to your business’s doorstep yet?

It’s a good one, and packs some serious heft.

“Psychological safety” – the new buzzword for leaders and individuals looking to work better, smarter, more creatively, and without toxicity. (That toxicity, thankfully, is under a well-deserved microscope thanks in part to the Great Resignation – and psychological safety is part of the recipe for the antidote.)

Sounds great, right… but what is it? And how do you know if it’s present?

It’s simpler to recreate how it felt when you likely didn’t have psychological safety. Think about a time in your career when you had to make a manager aware of a problem at work. Maybe something wasn’t working as planned, a deadline was about to be missed, or a serious issue was getting overlooked. Maybe some part of that was even your fault. 

How did you feel just before you told them?

Did you worry that you’d be blamed, that someone would be angry with you, that there’d be fallout that was anything but focused on solving the problem?

That was the utter opposite of psychological safety. And even if you were brave enough to face it, can you imagine how often others are not? Fear of failure is paralyzing… and by trying to avoid or postpone it, we actually cement it. 

The gift, now, is that you have the opportunity to cultivate psychological safety for your team, even if you were “brought up” in an environment where the opposite was the status quo.


So what is psychological safety?

Psychological safety is the sense that any of your team members can speak up without fear. It is permission for candor, disagreement, and risk-taking. 

It is the space to try something, because mistakes and failures are dealt with professionally and proportionately. 

It is about separating anyone’s self-worth from the company’s success or failure. Every contributor still owns their performance, but they won’t be made to feel that their performance at work is the definition of their entire being. 

It also is about embracing authenticity. In an environment where the team fears ridicule, individualism and new ideas are squashed for fear of not fitting in. When feedback and contributions are evaluated on their individual merits you’re encouraging those out-of-the-box ideas that might not otherwise be shared. Authenticity means being vulnerable, and to be vulnerable one generally needs to feel safe. 

It’s also important to understand what psychological safety is NOT. 

It’s not:

    • Hand-holding and “participation trophies” 
    • Always being nice
    • Evading discomfort
    • Lack of accountability

In fact, psychological safety should actually INCREASE accountability; when you have a team that is rewarded for owning mistakes and shortcomings, when that team is dedicated to identifying and solving issues – you are encouraging ownership, problem solving, and thinking outside of the box. 


Why is psychological safety so important?

Hopefully the basic tenets that make up psychological safety already sound appealing. But we can build a better case for doing this work to create this environment.

Professional permission to take a risk lets your team know they have the support of the business. Everyone is invested – with agreement at every level that the upsides of the bets we’re collectively taking outweigh the risks of occasional failures. As a result, employees feel secure in taking a swing at their big idea. And businesses see increasing benefits of investing in that security as employees hit bigger and bigger successes. 

When you have the security to disagree, everyone benefits from the progress and collaborative solutions that can only be attained with open and honest feedback.

When you have space to fail, your entire team has leeway to get creative and think outside the box.

The leaps forward for your company won’t come from safely standing still. 

Admitting that there are things to learn encourages a team to seek out that learning. 

All of this creates an environment where everyone on the team has a sense of ownership, mutual respect, and knows that their input is valued. You’re fostering engagement. You’re rewarding those who bring their passion to their work. You’re getting so much more than you would from disengaged employees – those who give their time, but not much more. 


I’m in. How do I build psychological safety in my workplace?


1. Start with the end in mind

To create a culture that has a basis in psychological safety, you have to understand what you want your company culture to look like. This is the foundation, the underpinning of everything. In life and in business. 

Just like with creating a business plan so you can achieve your goals, you need to know what you want your culture to be and why you’re pursuing a safe environment – one that fosters engagement, collaboration, creativity; one that celebrates success and learns openly from failure. 

Create this with intention, and ask yourself: 

        • What does a culture of engagement look like to you? 
        • How are people contributing, collaborating? 
        • What do you want, need, or expect from an engaged & collaborative team? 
        • What is the end result you’d like from a more engaged team and what one thing, if done consistently, would allow you to get there?

If you want a culture, and team, who freely engage, collaborate, and create fearlessly, you need to have a clear intention for how YOU will show up each day to focus on and create that culture. 


2. Master your mindset and harness your authentic awkward self 

One of the biggest steps you can take to unilaterally promote a psychologically safe environment is very simple… and yet for some, very hard. 

Be yourself. 

Your authentic, awkward, odd, self. 

It doesn’t just feel real-er. “Fitting in” limits growth and innovation. We’re driving so hard at risk taking and creativity. What is creative about being cookie cutter business-casual automatons? Where is the risk (and reward) in being just like everyone else?

Bringing our authentic awkward self to work helps you build a life and business that’s fulfilling and doesn’t consume you. Stop pretending so hard, and start embracing your real self – even if she’s a little nutty sometimes! 

When you show up as who you are on the outside, you invite others to show up as who they are, too. You give them a chance to really see you and trust you. 

What you’re being on the outside – authentically awkward, with a dose of vulnerability – is what your team, colleagues, friends, kids, etc, are being on the inside. They want to bring their authentic awkwardness out…and they need a safe place to do so.  

When they see you doing it, it gives them permission and safety to show up as a whole person, not just the bits and pieces they think they need to be in order to belong and connect.

If this all feels very trendy and new, consider that Maslow essentially made this point for us in his hierarchy of needs. After your physiological needs (food, water) and physical safety are met, the next step on the hierarchy is belonging. 

Note that it’s not “fitting in,” but a true sense of belonging and connection in your relationships. It’s only when you have that sense of authentically belonging that you can move up the pyramid in your self-esteem, identity, and ultimate goal of self-actualization. Imagine how powerful your business could be if you’re enabling your teams to achieve their full potential.


3. Take the time to get to know your team

93% of employees want to work for a company that cares about them as an individual 

-2016 Cone Communications Employee Engagement Study

Now that we’ve dropped (or are slowly dismantling) our professional facades and we’re showing up as ourselves at work, it’s time for you to see, hear, and connect with your team as they really are, too.

People want (a safe place) to be seen and heard. 

And safety begins with being seen.

Get to know your team – really know them. Be the boots on the ground of your company. Stop by, engage in conversation, ask about their family – or whatever is most important to them. 

CONNECT with them. This isn’t small talk. This is the cornerstone of human relationships. 

This will foster trust, safety, collaboration, break down silos, improve your employee experience and hence your customer experience: EX=CX

And then reinforce that trust. Regularly. 

        • Do you keep their “confidences” safe – what they’re confiding in with you? 
        • Are you showing up consistently? 
        • Showing genuine interest? 
        • Displaying that you’ve retained what they’ve shared?

When your team trusts you, knows that you value and trust them, and believes the business stands behind them, you’re likely to see new levels of collaboration. 

Authenticity. Trust. Collaboration. Safety. Creativity. Risk. Engagement. Passion. Reward.

It’s a powerful cycle. And dare I say, a safe bet.