The Productivity Box: Why Psychological Safety Is Important at Work

It has been proven that poor mental health affects job performance in many ways. The environment we work in, however, can either worsen or ease the overall impact. And that’s where psychological safety comes in. For the first installment of The Productivity Box series in 2023, we will discuss what psychological safety means and why it is so beneficial in the workplace.

The Productivity Box: Why Psychological Safety Is Important at Work

The existing state of affairs

According to a joint poll from CNN and the Kaiser Family Foundation, 90 percent of Americans felt the U.S. reached a mental crisis in 2022. Issues such as chronic stress, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, loneliness, or burnout caused strain in several areas of life. And work was no exception. In fact, many revealed they weren’t even able to take time away from their jobs in order to access mental health care last year.

January continues to heap on mental and emotional challenges. About five percent of Americans suffer from a type of clinical depression known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Another 10–20 percent deal with the winter blues, Cleveland Clinic reports. Combine that seasonal depression with other factors such as post-holiday fatigue, and it’s not hard to see why this month can wreak havoc on your mental health.

Psychological safety and performance

The term psychological safety was coined by author and researcher Amy Edmonson, professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School. In a 2014 TEDx Talk, Edmonson defined this concept as the ability to speak up at work. Whether there are concerns, questions, ideas, o even mistakes, it is OK and even recommended to speak up.

Therefore, a culture built on psychological safety ensures that all team members feel heard, valued, resourced, empowered, and supported in an equitable manner. Psychological safety fosters strong interpersonal connections, inclusion, and collaboration.

It also allows each voice to carry influence over the decision-making process. It promotes a diversity of thought, expertise, and innovation. It boosts morale, well-being, and job satisfaction.

This experience is crucial for those who face a lack of representation in their jobs. A recent survey found that women and other minority groups are 1.6 times more prone to feel like they don’t belong. However, in a culture of psychological safety, these team members report 47 percent more co-worker connections and 31 percent more organizational support.

Similarly, those with mental health concerns are 14 percent more productive when they’re in an environment of psychological safety. That’s because when everyone feels welcome to belong, they’ll show up to work with their full selves intact. They will display their enthusiasm, passion, motivation, ideas, talents, and contributions.

Team members who know they belong tend to exhibit more engagement, resilience, leadership skills, and growth mindsets. And all of these are important predictors of retention. When working in an environment that supports mental and emotional well-being, employees perform at higher levels, which leads to proactive, collaborative solutions.

Psychological safety is a must—it’s just that simple. Now here’s how to nurture it in your organization.

Creating a psychologically safe environment

Trust is the link between psychological safety and strong job performance, explains Sebastian Vaida, lecturer and psychologist at Babes-Bolyai University in Romania. With a secure bedrock of trust, unity and cohesion will take root. This is when psychological safety can thrive.

To achieve this, all team members should feel equally safe to:

  • Experiment with new methods
  • Share their views
  • Offer input or feedback
  • Challenge the status quo
  • Overcome failures without being treated in a harmful manner.

Interactions should be respectful, with an understanding that everyone—from the most senior executive to the newest hire—has inherent value. The climate should foster a willingness to learn from each other in the pursuit of common goals.

Five action steps

Whether you’re a leader or employee, these action steps will bolster psychological safety.

1. Practice active listening

Enter each conversation with a curiosity to hear someone else’s perspective, rather than just to make a point or win a debate. Pay close attention to both their verbal and non-verbal cues. Resist the urge to formulate your own rebuttal, and ask clarifying questions to be sure you understand the message.

It’s called active listening and it’s used for both finding out information and making the other party feel heard. Double win!

2. Resolve conflict graciously

If a team member behaves in a way that harms another person or violates the culture of trust, don’t shame this colleague—but don’t overlook their actions either.

Take a civil but firm stand to explain that disrespectful behavior has no place in this environment. Communicate that it makes others feel unsafe to share, contribute, and be themselves, which stifles creativity and innovation.

Here are some conflict management techniques for effective communication at work.

3. Be receptive to feedback

Invite co-workers to hold you accountable in moments when you’re the source of a conflict. Even if you had no intention of causing harm, the impact must be owned so that safety can be restored.

Accept feedback, admit to the fault, offer a sincere apology, and then commit to learning from this experience.

4. Lean into vulnerability

Normalize being honest about your difficulties, imperfections, mistakes, and failures. This will encourage those around you to express their own vulnerabilities too.

When you see each other as humans first and foremost, it becomes much easier to grow, learn, and improve together.

5. Show empathy to others

You never know how much someone might benefit from an act of kindness or compassion.

If a co-worker nailed their presentation, recognize them for a job well done. If you notice a team member is stressed or upset, ask if you can help or just hold space to listen. If a colleague feels inadequate, point out their strengths and re-affirm their value.

Focusing on empathy will increase team morale.

Don’t overlook the importance of psychological safety

As January moves slowly towards February, it’s normal to feel a dip in mental health from stress, exhaustion, seasonal blues, or just life in general. That doesn’t mean your work performance has to suffer.

When you create an environment of psychological safety, it helps build a culture where you (and the team as a whole) can flourish. Ultimately, this boosts productivity.

Psychological safety no longer is just a perk—it is a necessity. And a great productivity hack to make your work performance strong again.

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