What allows people to confidently share ideas and contribute to a collaborative undertaking?

It’s the interpersonal climate of a team – a phenomenon called ‘psychological safety’. The key role of this climate is to increase an individual’s ability to take risk and action, in the face of uncertainty or change. It thus prevents people from withdrawing or disengaging. And this need not be disruptive change. It could be anything that does not match an individual’s expectations.

With this foundational function, psychological safety operates at two levels.

Employee level. In lieu of the feelings (worthiness, confidence, security) and attitudes (curiosity, expression, commitment) comprising psychological safety, it induces vitality in a person. It prompts the individual to be energetic and active. Studies by Carmeli (2009) and Gong (2012) indicate that employees who feel psychologically safe, are more competent at creative work, and proactively engage in exchanging information with team members. This fosters trust in the team, helping employees enjoy their work.

Kahn’s (1990) says that to embody the above behaviors, employees first assess their work environment and how they want to engage with it. The degree of their psychological safety depends on the following parameters:

  • How meaningful is this for me? (Referring to job-person fit, alignment with values/ vision, and understanding of their role in the team.)
  • How safe is it to be here? (Is the team respectful, trust-worthy, appreciative, curious and willing?)
  • How available am I to do so? (An indicator of self-awareness, skill, energy levels, and willingness.)

As much as the onus is on employees, psychological safety is also a result of leadership behaviors, culture, and other organizational factors. Organizational commitment to employees’ well-being and growth informs your team that they can flourish in this environment. When motivated by such organizational investment, your team’s skills and energy augment enterprise performance. That’s the impact of psychological safety! Here’s what you can do at the organizational level to take a step closer to such performance.

  • The practice of encouraging participation, creates a culture of learning and innovation. It increases the collective intelligence of the group, leading to generation of more novel ideas, and collaborative problem solving. Thus, how managers react when someone reports a mistake, interrupts another member, disagrees with leaders, or suggests a tangential idea, goes a long way in establishing safety.
  • Deliberate and consistent attempts to improve an organization’s services/ impact, gives rise to a climate of co-operation and initiative (Baer & Frase 2003). Innovations when generated from the teams, are a strong indicator of value and contribution of each employee. The climate of initiative sets the expectation that traditional organizational dynamics are a passé now.
  • Companies that focus on building high-quality relationships, have higher psychological safety (Carmeli 2009). Such relationships have increased emotional capacity, tensility, connectivity, positive regard, and mutuality. This enhances an organization’s dynamism, in terms of learning from failure, error management and critical thinking.

In a nut-shell, psychological safety describes a climate in which the focus is on productive discussion. It enables accomplishment of shared goals because people are less likely to focus on self-protection. If you want to get there, we ask, “How do you want to show-up in the employee-employer dynamic?”

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