It's not only important to have a physically safe workspace for your employees, writes Wendy Born, but a psychologically safe space. She explains why your company's work environment could be your best asset as a leader
As leaders we have an obligation to provide our employees with a safe work environment. A place that safeguards our people, ensuring they can leave at the end of the day to return to their loved ones. But how often do we think about the other often-unconsidered type of safety? The psychological kind?
In his book Leadership in the Age of Personalization: Why Standardization Fails in the Age of ‘Me’, Glenn Llopis reports on a survey of more than 14,000 leaders and their employees at a broad range of companies across the US, highlighting that the number one thing employees wanted in order to be their authentic selves at work was ‘a safe environment where no one is judged’. This was twice as important as ‘feeling valued and respected’ and having ‘trust and transparency from their supervisor’. Based on his research, Llopis also notes that when employees are asked what they think about a problem and are able to safely provide input into the solution without being judged, they feel incentivised to do more.
Creating a psychologically safe environment for your team means providing a space that enables people to openly and honestly share their thoughts, views and opinions
A psychologically safe environment
Creating a psychologically safe environment for your team means providing a space that enables people to openly and honestly share their thoughts, views and opinions without fear of being judged, ridiculed or excluded. This is becoming harder and harder as society evolves to becoming more openly judgmental of people. We feel it’s our right to be able to slam people for their views and opinions if they don’t align with ours. When we are on the receiving end of this outrage – or even see other people experience it – we learn that it isn’t safe to say anything because our reputation, career and status will be put at risk. People are now afraid to say anything for fear of someone becoming outraged. Yet studies by Barbara Fredrickson from North Carolina University show that when we create psychologically safe environments for our teams to operate in, we see increases in positive emotions and results, and we become more open-minded, resilient, motivated and persistent.
Open and constructive debate
Having a diverse array of views and opinions is important for any team because it allows for a broad set of perspectives, particularly when decisions need to be made. A 2017 study by Forbes concluded that diverse teams make better decisions 87% of the time and make them twice as fast with half the meetings. But with diversity come different views and often conflict. Ensuring we set up a safe environment to enable teams to have constructive conflict is critical.
By ensuring that your people have a safe environment to work in, you will see improvements in their creativity, performance and accountability
You can do this by setting the ground rules for debate from the start, such as not making arguments personal, openly assigning a devil’s advocate, and establishing rules of engagement. Also, understanding how the team responds to conflict, using tools such as the Thomas-Kilmann conflict model, is a great way to help them build self-awareness around their individual approaches to conflict.
Clear expectations and consequences
In a 2015 survey conducted by US firm Harris Poll of more than 1,000 ‘people leaders’, 37% found it difficult to provide their people with feedback on their performance. Additionally, approximately 20% found it difficult to give their employees clear directions. As a people leader, one of the most important jobs you can do is to set clear expectations for your people, along with associated consequences. Clear and concise expectations provide you with something to measure performance against. As Gallup research from 2018 highlights, when you create this clarity for your people, they are eight times more likely to be engaged. When we have psychologically safe environments these conversations are easier to have and hear.
Taking the time to understand what you want your people to achieve enables you to communicate it clearly. If you don’t know yourself, you can’t expect anyone else to know. You can also set out priorities using tools like the SMART model of goal-setting (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely). This is a great model because it provides you with an easy framework and structure. And please hold your people accountable if they don’t deliver. A Gallup poll from 2019 showed that 86% of respondents were not inspired to improve performance by their performance review. If people don’t expect to be held accountable, why would they want to do any better? When people expect accountability, they know they need to deliver.
By ensuring that your people have a safe environment to work in, you will see improvements in their creativity, performance and accountability. They will feel comfortable to speak up and say what they think without fear of being judged, ridiculed or criticised. Performance and personal accountability also improve because your people know what’s expected and by when. Putting time into this upfront will set you and your team up in an environment that drives success.
Wendy Born is the author of Raising Leaders and helps leaders maximise their talent and strengths to achieve extraordinary results. As an engaging facilitator, coach and speaker, she works with executives, senior leaders and leadership teams to create high-performance organisations.