Talent Management

How to build a sense of psychological safety in an organization

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One of the most severe consequences of the pandemic is a disturbed sense of security, including in the professional world. Therefore, one of the most important tasks of modern leaders is to support employees in restoring their psychological balance. It is worth taking care of at four levels – psychological safety quadrants. 

The issue of a sense of safety was not recognized on a larger scale until the crisis of 2020. But COVID-19 only put the problem in the spotlight, forcing organizations to take more responsibility for the mental health and well-being of their employees. And while many have taken care of this before, the current situation motivates systemic solutions to help prevent similar problems in the future. 

Consequences of psychological insecurity

We are now aware that the pandemic has had a huge impact on the mental health of people around the world. Fear of getting sick, social distance, lockdowns, loss of revenue in many industries – are just some of the factors destabilizing the lives of millions of workers. The consequences soon followed. A study conducted around the world has revealed an increase in emotional disorders, depression, anxiety, exhaustion and burnout, suicide attempts, alcohol, and drug addictions.

Problems that have not gone away

Workplace insecurity was also a challenge before the pandemic but in a slightly different way. Christine Pearson and Christine Porath conducted research for 14 years with thousands of workers, and as many as 98% admitted that they had experienced mistreatment at work. At the same time, deterioration has been observed over the years: in 2011, half of the respondents said they were mistreated at least once a week – compared to 25% in 1998. Researchers acknowledge that the consequences are severe for both parties:

  • Half of the mistreated workers intentionally reduced their efforts and lowered the quality of their tasks. 
  • Stress negatively affected creativity and mood, which often resulted in quitting.
  • Negative interactions among employees had a bad effect on the perception of the company by customers and reduced willingness to use its services or products. 

Another long-term research among 740 leaders, demonstrated the impact of well-being on effectiveness and performance at work. As many as 94% of respondents said they are most effective when they feel calm, happy, and energetic. In contrast, states of frustration, anxiety, fatigue, and stress, especially when experienced long-term, were detrimental to performance. Similar conclusions have also been coming from WHO reports for years. 

In the pre-pandemic world, managing a sense of safety in the workplace was not a priority, only a good will of an organization. The problems that companies faced back then are not gone; in fact, they gained new meaning. Today, most companies already acknowledge that caring for the mental health and well-being of employees is a priority and is often an important part of employee experience management (EX). An important question to ask yourself in this situation is how to create a safe environment that will positively impact the performance of the teams. Four stages of psychological safety in organizations may be the answer. 

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What is psychological safety in an organization?

Timothy R. Clark is the author of the book “The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation” that helps understand and implement a culture of psychological safety within an organization. He claims that psychological safety is:

“Ability to interact with others without fear of negative consequences (Clark, 2020)

This means creating conditions for the employees such that it is not socially, emotionally, politically, or economically costly for them to be themselves. Clark believes that the level of psychological safety within a team is a key measure of the culture, health, and vitality of the team and takes place at four levels (quadrants).

Four stages of psychological safety in organizations

Designing an organization as a psychological safety zone cannot proceed without considering four areas. Each of them requires systemic solutions, but most importantly, committed leaders.

psychological safety in an organization levels
Source: https://www.wwt.com/article/how-and-why-to-create-safety-within-your-teams

Stage 1.  Learner Safety – is the sense of safety associated with learning. It is the comfort of exploring, asking questions, experimenting, learning from mistakes or finding new solutions. This level is extremely valuable to the organization because it supports the employee’s engagement in the learning process. At a time when reskilling and upskilling are becoming the biggest business challenges, the ability to create safe learning environments at every stage of the employee lifecycle is becoming a necessity, not just a trend.

Stage 2. Challenger Safety – is the sense of safety associated with challenging the status quo without fear of embarrassment, marginalization, or punishment. Employees are free to express themselves on a variety of topics, raise issues, and share ideas or take initiative.

Stage 3. Collaborator (Contributor) Safety – is the sense of safety associated with collaboration, interacting with colleagues, commitment, openness to others, and other points of view

Stage 4. Inclusion Safety – is the sense of safety associated with inclusion. Employees know that they are valued and important to the company and their supervisor. Their experience and ideas matter. They are treated fairly, regardless of their position, views, beliefs, religion, color or sexual orientation. 

How to provide psychological safety to your employees

As Clark acknowledges in his book, rudeness and abuse are common but get away with it in companies where there is a high regard for authority and hierarchy. At the same time, he believes that the fundamental level of psychological safety is a human right, not deserved but due. What makes this concept work in an organization is primarily the emotional intelligence of the leaders. And it’s not about “being polite,” but it’s about being able to recognize your own emotional states and those of your co-workers, and approach them appropriately. 

Where to start? 

Depending on the current state of organizational culture, providing psychological safety to employees requires a deep systemic change or just some structuring of activities. Most important here, however, is the role of leaders, their deepened awareness of emotional intelligence, and their willingness to make changes. And those are not going to happen at the same time. Timothy Clark gives a number of specific tips, assigned to each stage of safety. It is a good idea to start by focusing on the two activities that have the greatest impact and observe the changes that occur. Here are some suggestions for leaders:

Learner Safety Stage – a sense of safety associated with learning:

  • Create a space where employees learn collaboratively rather than competitively. 
  • Analyze the learning styles and personality disposition of each person on your team. This will help you manage the learning process and adjust appropriate methods to personality, preferences, and needs. 
  • Share what you learn.
  • Invite others to think beyond their professional roles. 
  • Explain what formal and informal learning are.
  • Introduce the culture of microlearning – even just 5 minutes of learning a day is enough. 

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Challenger Safety Stage – a sense of safety associated with challenging the status quo:

  • Get out of the habit of fear-based management – usually a reaction born of frustration and insecurity of the leader that causes withdrawal and self-censorship. 
  • Respond constructively to destructive ideas and bad news.
  • Be aware that your ideas may be considered better just because of your position.
  • Explain reasons for rejecting ideas. 
  • Appreciate every challenge to the status quo. 
  • Build diverse teams. 

Collaborator (Contributor) Safety Stage – a sense of security associated with collaboration:

  • Allow team members to lead meetings – this will boost their confidence and give them a sense of participation.
  • Create clearly defined roles and communicate their scope – do not assume responsibilities are obvious. 
  • Be attentive to moments when team members do not know what to do but are afraid or embarrassed to ask. Ask them what they think the next steps should be.
  • Shape a personalized experience for your employees – to the best of your and your company’s ability.
  • Share your work style and communication preferences.
  • Let team members work in their own style and do things their own way.

Inclusion Safety Stage – a sense of safety associated with inclusion:

  • Talk to and educate team members about inclusive behavior, that everyone has the right to be included in team activities. 
  • Introduce yourself at the first possible opportunity – especially new people may be intimidated at first. 
  • Listen and ask rather than tell.
  • Avoid comparisons and competition.
  • Share your story and learn the stories of others.
  • Prohibit personal attacks – people make mistakes and fail, but still have the right to be respected and actively involved in the life of the company. Always react to disregard, negative comments, or exclusionary behavior. 

Building a safe work environment is only possible with leaders who feel safe themselves. It is worth it to make sure they are comfortable, confident, and self-aware by offering them support on different levels. These can include self-assessment tools, a mentoring system, support groups, and a comprehensive development system. However, it is crucial to understand that psychological safety is important and depends on commitment at every level of the organization. 

Unfortunately, we have no control over the external changes and crises that are inherent in the New Normal. Still, we must take care of employees at every level and protect them as much as possible. 

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