Health and Wellness

'Psychological safety' at work improves productivity–here are 4 ways to get it, according to a Harvard expert

A woman working from home during the Covid lockdown.
Alistair Berg | DigitalVision | Getty Images

A concept called "psychological safety" is especially crucial to a team's success, according to Amy Edmondson, professor of leadership and management at the Harvard Business School. 

Psychological safety describes "a workplace where one feels that one's voice is welcome with bad news, questions, concerns, half-baked ideas and even mistakes," Edmondson tells CNBC Make It. People should feel like they can ask questions, raise concerns and pitch ideas without undue repercussions. 

It's a concept that's even more valuable now, with so many people adjusting to remote work and worrying about going back to work, as well as with many companies pledging to better address systemic racial inequality and with colleagues trying to be better allies.

Speaking up will likely never feel completely effortless, but it should feel like the right thing to do and like "it'll be welcomed and valued by colleagues," Edmondson says. In other words, you should feel like you have the "safety" to speak up, take risks or admit errors.

Studies on psychological safety point to wide-ranging benefits, including increased confidence, creativity, trust and productivity. 

A 2017 Gallup report found that if organizations increase psychological safety, it makes employees more engaged in their work and can lead to a 12% increase in productivity. In 2015, when Google studied its employees to determine "what makes a good team," researchers found that psychological safety was the most important quality that determined a team's success.

Whether you're in an entry-level position or managing a team, there are things you can do to help have a positive impact and shift the culture in your workplace. "You might not be the most powerful person in the organization, and that's okay," Edmondson says. "How you show up still matters." 

Here are a few tangible ways that you can cultivate psychological safety, especially in challenging times.

Admit what you don't know

Voicing your opinion requires vulnerability, which can be intimidating for many people, especially those at the beginning of their careers. "The default is always going to be, be silent," Edmondson says.

Instead of pretending that you know all the answers, you should emphasize the challenges and uncertainties that lie ahead, and be honest about what you don't know, Edmondson says. A 2012 study suggests that when leaders are open about their own limitations or mistakes, people feel like their own "developmental journeys and feelings of uncertainty are legitimate."

For example, living amid the Covid-19 pandemic has meant sitting with uncertainty. Simply getting comfortable listening and saying, "I don't know" are some of the most important steps you can take, whether you're in a leadership position or not, she says. 

Education and acknowledging your privilege are also key steps to being an ally for people of color and marginalized communities. Listening sessions, in which people are invited to share their experiences in a structured forum, can also invite different viewpoints and develop psychological safety.

Ultimately, these strategies level the playing field and remind people of what's at stake, so everyone feels like their voice and contributions are necessary. "That quite simply creates the rationale for speaking up," Edmondson says. 

Respond productively to problems

Psychological safety isn't a silver bullet, meaning occasionally you will encounter problems or errors, Edmondson says. When faced with an issue, it's even more important to monitor your own reactions and respond in a way that's productive, she says. That doesn't mean you have to sugar-coat everything you say, but rather "recognize and respect the person for coming forward," she says.

For example, if your coworker flags a problem to you, your first step should be thanking them, rather than dwelling on how something went wrong. Not only does it signal that you respect their voice, but it also shifts the focus to the future. Although your first instinct might be to figure out what went wrong to cause the error, "we have to sort of train ourselves to be forward-looking," she says.

Get comfortable with new technology 

There are ways to develop psychological safety, even when working remotely during the pandemic. While the nuances of communication tend to get lost in video chats and instant messages, they also provide new opportunities to build relationships with people within your organization. "Building psychological safety in virtual teams takes effort and strategy that pays off in engagement, collegiality, productive dissent and idea generation," Edmondson co-wrote in a recent Harvard Business Review article.

Edmondson's advice for maintaining psychological safety in virtual meetings? Use tools such as hand-raising, anonymous polls, break-out rooms and chat functions to encourage everyone to participate off-camera, she suggests. Further, it can be helpful to rotate which team member runs the meeting, to get different perspectives. And if there are specific team members who tend to be quiet in virtual meetings, continue the conversations in a one-on-one setting so it feels less intimidating.

Have a sense of purpose

Knowing your purpose at work is the most important step in developing psychological safety, Edmondson says. In other words, you should understand why your work matters in the broader scope of your company and beyond. When people feel like their opinions count, they're more likely to speak up, she says.

Having a sense of purpose or mission helps in a number of other ways: Research suggests that when people feel like their work has purpose or meaning, they're happier, more productive and stay in jobs longer.

"You can't go wrong by emphasizing and re-emphasizing the purpose of the organization," she says.

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