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Why the License to Be Yourself at Work Cultivates Wellbeing and Business Results

In aid of Mental Health Awareness week, I turned my mind to how in the last year our work and personal lives melded into one as many of us saw our homes become our offices. The impact to my mental health varied throughout but as I reflect, one factor that came as a relief time and time again was the safety to bring my whole self to work.

Written by Kirsten Walker, Principal Consultant


Psychological safety wasn’t a term I heard often, if at all, until recently. In psychology, we tend to create a label for everything, it’s what helps us make sense of the world around us. This label piqued my interest though, as it gave a name to something I felt I never could quite put my finger on in my working life when it was there; even more so when it wasn’t. This is what led me to doing research, and ultimately a thesis, in this area.

The term psychological safety refers to an individual’s perceptions about the consequences of taking interpersonal risks in their work environment. The key word for me here is perception. Although one may feel they are acting in a particular way to foster psychological safety, what matters is the perception of those on the receiving end and whether they feel psychologically safe. A recent practical example of psychological safety relates to research done with surgeons and surgical nurses working in an operating theatre. They reported very low scores when it came to feeling comfortable expressing any type of concern, and subsequently over half reported low morale within the team. Unsurprisingly, over a third of respondents reported that they’ve seen the same mistake repeated. In other words, the lack of psychological safety within a team hinders productivity and quality of work, and in this case, quite critically. The evidence of the impact to team performance is in abundance which directly influences the effective execution of deliverables, but what about the impact to our mental wellbeing?

Because psychological safety is positively correlated with job performance, it comes as no surprise that the factors that increase our performance at work are the same factors that contribute to our wellbeing. When you feel empowered to make decisions about your own work (self-efficacy), feel comfortable to challenge without fear of repercussion (trust & respect), work collaboratively with your team (work engagement & social support), and feel you are providing value (self-esteem), you’re more likely to feel energised, resilient and confidence in your abilities. All these factors are influenced by whether we feel safe to express ourselves at work and are proven to reduce exhaustion and depression. When psychological safety is absent, it can leave us feeling overwhelmed, emotionally heightened and can ultimately affect the emotional ability to do our jobs.

What can you do to support psychological safety at work?

There are many practices we can put in place to foster a psychologically safe workplace, but it does depend on what role you play:

Leaders

  • Be clear on the expectations of your team
  • Encourage healthy debate amongst your team
  • Don’t be afraid to show humility to encourage an open and non-judgmental environment
  • Build trust amongst your team by demonstrating behaviours that promote curiosity and creativity
  • Build formal or informal forums where employees know they can speak freely and ask for honest feedback

Colleagues

  • Involve others in work discussions, welcome challenges to status quo
  • Bring your authentic self to work; consider sharing some trials and tribulations with colleagues to promote the human element, ultimately promoting trust
  • Adopt a learning mindset when faced with adversity at work. Approaching task conflict from a place of curiosity rather than blame or defensiveness as it can not only help problem solving but also helps build interpersonal relationships.

What to do if you’re feeling psychologically unsafe at work?

If you’re feeling like you can’t speak your mind, are fearful of speaking out of turn or saying the wrong thing or are worried about offending your boss, then you’re not feeling psychologically safe in your work environment.

The first step is to speak to someone, this can be your leader, HR or a coach/buddy and express how you’re feeling. Every organisation will have their own process for addressing employee concerns, but this will start the conversation and trigger action.

There are things you can do in the meantime to take control of the situation and lessen the impact of your environment. This includes keeping an objective lens (as much as possible) when faced with adversity at work, aiming to find a solution rather than internalising the task conflict. Also, it helps to remove yourself from situations where you feel isolated, belittled or disrespected until the issues are addressed.

There is a strong business case for creating a psychologically safe culture within an organisation as it not only positively impacts the bottom line by increasing job performance but, more importantly, puts people at the heart of everything we do. The positive correlation between psychological safety and job performance is strong, as it nurtures innovation, creativity, effective problem solving and ultimately high-quality results. During a time of change it’s particularly crucial to ensure the presence of psychological safety as it allows us to act as integral disrupters and challenge the status quo without fear of being shamed which can often lead to breakthrough ideas and solutions

Culture change takes time and is incremental, but it does start with leaders emulating safe behaviours. We look to our leaders to decide how to behave at work as it guides us to what is acceptable and what isn’t within the team. A good rule of thumb with culture change for leaders is practice what you preach. We need to take care of each other and our own mental wellbeing at work and beyond to unlock our potential and live well.


References

Bognár, A., Barach, P., Johnson, J. K., Duncan, R. C., Birnbach, D., Woods, D., ... & Bacha, E. A. (2008). Errors and the burden of errors: attitudes, perceptions, and the culture of safety in pediatric cardiac surgical teams. The Annals of Thoracic Surgery, 85(4), 1374-1381.

Delizonna, L. (2017). High-performing teams need psychological safety. Here’s how to create it. Harvard Business Review, 24, 2017.

Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative science quarterly, 44(2), 350-383.

Obrenovic, B., Jianguo, D., Khudaykulov, A., & Khan, M. A. S. (2020). Work-family conflict impact on psychological safety and psychological well-being: A job performance model. Frontiers in psychology11, 475.

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