Strategies for Navigating Psychological Safety in the Workplace

April 10, 2023

Work team members in an office, talking as a group. In the modern workplace, employees are expected to bring their best ideas and thoughts to the table. However, for many, expressing their opinions and thoughts can be a daunting task. This is where psychological safety comes into play.

Let’s dive deeper into the concept of psychological safety in the workplace and explore what you can do if you feel that your workplace is not a psychologically safe environment.

What is psychological safety?

According to Garnter, “Psychological safety is an environment that encourages, recognizes and rewards individuals for their contributions and ideas by making individuals feel safe when taking interpersonal risks.”

Taking it from the opposite perspective, the Center for Creative Leadership describes psychological safety as “the belief that you won't be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.”

What is psychological safety in the workplace?

When you take a look at Psychological safety as it applies to the workspace, Gartner explains that it is “a shared expectation held by members of a team that teammates will not embarrass, reject, or punish them for sharing ideas, taking risks, or soliciting feedback.”

What does this mean for you?

If you have differing point of view with your colleagues or manager, it’s important that you feel comfortable expressing your opinion.

Speaking up to your manager is a courageous act all on its own. If done respectfully, the outcome can be positive.

However, I have learned that many of my clients do not feel safe expressing their opinions at work. As a result, they are stressed, anxious about going to work, and not fully engaged in their workplace. Their overall well-being is affected across the board, both at work and in their personal lives.

Fear prevents employees from voicing their opinions. They are afraid of being fired, or of being given a negative performance review because they were deemed “difficult.” They worry about getting on someone’s radar; if they cross the line just once, they can be labeled and on a powerful person’s bad side from there on out.

If your workplace is psychologically unsafe, what can you do about it?

You could talk to your boss. If you feel like they are approachable and just not aware of the impact on you and your colleagues, a simple conversation might be enough to make the changes that you need. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt. If no one has spoken up to them before, they may just not realize that what is happening is inappropriate.

If the issue is with your manager or your colleagues, and your boss isn’t approachable or responsive to your concerns, consider talking to their manager. (I think of them as the “big boss.”) It is possible that they aren’t aware of the situation and wouldn’t approve of it if they knew about it. This can be a scary option, especially if you’re concerned your immediate boss will be angry that you went over their head and take it out on you.

This is a great time to find a coach. When you talk to your boss or the “big boss” about these types of sensitive topics, it can be difficult to know what to say or how to say it. A coach can help you put together how you want to convey your message. They can also help you gather the courage that you’ll need to take these steps.

This whole scenario is just one reason why it can be helpful to develop positive relationships with your boss and their boss. Ideally, you don’t want the first time you talk to the “big boss” to be when you’re talking about a problem that you’re experiencing.

If neither your boss nor the “big boss” is responsive, that may be the time bring in HR. I consider HR to be the last resort. It’s important to make sure you try other steps first. Once you bring in HR, you’re bringing in more people and a bigger response. This is another good time to have a coach who has your back. They can help you find the right words to explain what you are experiencing and guide you through what may be an emotionally challenging time.

If you experience a lack of psychological safety throughout the company, it’s likely embedded in the culture. Your boss and their boss may not only be unaware that it’s happening; they may see it as “this is just how things work around here.” If they don’t understand the problem (or are so much a part of the problem that you can’t talk to them) it still might be worth talking to HR. It is possible that they don’t realize the negative experience of the culture on their employees. But if it’s truly embedded in the company culture, it’s going to be even more difficult to drive change, especially in a very big corporation.

If you truly feel like there’s no way for you to change what’s happening, your best option may be to leave. If that’s the case, at least you now know more about what you don’t want in the company you work for.

Remember that you deserve to be treated with respect, kindness, and compassion by everyone, especially by your manager and colleagues.

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