Psychological safety in the workplace is much vaunted, and for good reason – a 2018  survey by Pew Research Center revealed that an overwhelming majority (89%) of employees in the US consider it essential to creating and sustaining a safe, respectful environment. Professor Amy Edmondson from the Harvard Business School also notes the dire consequences that show up in the absence of psychological safety – instances of silence that often lead to errors and lost opportunities for businesses.

Managers, along with their team members, need to vigilantly observe interpersonal interactions to identify acts that erode psychological safety and behaviors indicating fear of speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, and making mistakes.

Here are some tell-tale signs in commonplace situations at work that indicate low levels of psychological safety:

  • Silence: Amy sees a typo in her colleague Mina’s presentation but refrains from letting her know because she fears ticking her off. Mina has been overly-defensive about her work, even in the face of well-meaning feedback from her colleagues.
  • Lack of transparency: Ray, a manager, routinely misses assigning training sessions to his reports and does not update training reports on a tracker either. As a result, his superiors are unaware of this lapse and his subordinates are unprepared for certain tasks.
  • Lack of active learning: Kris, a manager, notices that his team is not updated on industry news or, at least, does not share or discuss any information, perhaps for fear of getting their information wrong.
  • Lack of innovation: Xin Yee notices that her team members at her new workplace rarely discuss new ideas with the boss or their colleagues.
  • A sense of being unheard: Gina feels there are few opportunities for her to speak or contribute at team meetings, or share her thoughts about team projects or her peers’ behaviors.
  • Fear of making mistakes: Junior members of the team are overheard discussing how the rest of the team holds it against them if they make a mistake at a meeting, and therefore they spend too much time preparing for meetings, yet avoid contributing at the table.
  • Unwillingness to discuss sensitive topics: At team meetings, new recruit Evan has never seen his colleagues bring up any issue, except for the most superficial ones.
  • An unwillingness to help: Karla feels reluctant to ask for help even when she is facing a tough project and a looming deadline, since in the past her team has refused to help.
  • Fear of being yourself: Joseph actively hides his personality at work, for fear of rejection by his team. He has previously seen them behave this way with a former colleague. Due to this, he has even avoided speaking to his manager, Lila, about some personal issues that are impacting his work, even though Lila has, in the past, found ways to accommodate other colleagues with similar issues.
  • Undermining behavior: Sameera refuses to take the lead on any projects nowadays, ever since her senior colleagues undermined her efforts to take control of meetings on the project she headed.
  • Feeling unvalued or under-utilized: Greta worked hard on her new project management course and was highly praised for her potential by the L&D team, but her manager still gives her only delivery-related responsibilities even when substantial gaps exist on the project management side of the team.

As you may have noticed, the culture of inhibition is often palpable, but at other times, it takes more insidious forms. To quote Eckhart Tolle, awareness is the greatest agent for change, so it’s worth using the above list to check for psychological safety (or the lack of it). You can even explore the Fearless Organization Scan from Professor Edmondson and her team.

Looking back at the behaviors you have encountered among your team members in the last few weeks, which ones reflect the existence of psychological safety at your workplace and which ones mark a dearth? What can you do to increase psychological safety in your team? In the next part of this series, you can look at what organizations like Google, Microsoft, and others recommend to raise the levels of psychological safety within teams, and compare notes.

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