Skip to main content

Blog

Psychological safety: creating safe spaces for employees to thrive

< Blog home

Psychological safety: creating safe spaces for employees to thrive

Toby’s got an idea.

 

It’s a good one. He’s excited. He’s confident it’ll help. Save time. Make jobs easier. Trim team spend.

He knows what he’s doing. He’s been working in the company for 4 years and he’s learned a lot.

He’s on the Teams meeting, coffee in hand, waiting anxiously and excitedly for the perfect moment to share his thoughts.

But Toby’s heart begins to race. His palms start to sweat. His stomach flips. He panics. And Toby’s idea slinks away sadly, failing to make the difference it could have.

 

What happened? Was Toby nervous? Stupid? Incompetent? No. Toby didn’t feel comfortable sharing his thoughts because he feared he might be shut down, even ridiculed. In Toby’s team, there was a distinct absence of psychological safety. It wasn’t just Toby who suffered. Katy felt the same. So did Steph. Team members felt a fear of reprisal, judgment, even shame if they spoke up because they’d seen it all too many times before. So most of the time, they chose to keep their heads down and remain quiet. A risk-free existence.

 

The meaning and value of psychological safety at work

 Amy Edmondson, organisational behavioural scientist and author of The Fearless Organisation, defines the notion of psychological safety as,

“A shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking, a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”

Edmondson observes that psychological safety “is not a personality difference but rather a feature of the workplace that leaders can and must help create.”

 

So how can leaders, at all levels, create comfortable environments and foster behaviours that help people feel safe to speak up, share ideas, make a difference? Communication plays a key part…

 

  1. Show appreciation for input

The way we respond when people share their ideas is critical to creating a psychologically safe environment. People can be permanently discouraged if others don’t respond to input in the right way. A good place to start is simply showing appreciation and thanking people for their ideas. It feels like a small thing, but had Toby been thanked for previous contributions, he may have been more willing to speak up and share his money-saving idea this time round.

 

  1. Define your ‘tent time’

We attended an inspiring session by the brilliant Dr Ed Coats, polar explorer, adventurer and Specialist Registrar in Obstetrics & Gynaecology. He spoke about the value of honesty, learning together from failure and having a safe environment where everyone feels they can be heard, respected and valued.

During expeditions, he and his team would gather in their tent, surrounded by snow in the freezing polar landscape, to discuss whatever was on their minds. They created a safe, open and honest environment for people to talk. And it created a seismic shift in their team dynamic. Mimic these moments by creating regular ‘tent time’ where anything goes, and people can safely share their thoughts and ideas. It might only take ten minutes but it’s a powerful habit to cultivate.

 

  1. Pair up

The book, No Hard Feelings, by Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy describes how people feel more trusting when they talk to a single person versus the whole room. Use break-out tools for virtual sessions – start meetings with a five-minute ice breaker, in which one person shares a challenge they’re currently tackling and the other offers ideas to help overcome it. People like Toby, Katy and Steph will begin to feel comfortable not only sharing the things that are testing them but also offering each other ideas and solutions to solve them.

 

  1. Practice proactive inquiry

Make it ok to not have all the answers and be comfortable with saying you don’t know. Because showing vulnerability is a key element of a psychologically safe environment. According to Elizabeth Lyle, partner at Boston Consulting Group and expert on creating high-performance teams,

“Leaders should create an environment where people feel encouraged to ask for input and information and to share their ideas and solutions.”

She adds, “We think that career currency is always having the answer. But in fact, we may just not know the answer, or we may have not thought about it yet.”

 

Let team members like Toby know that all thoughts and ideas are valued and directly encourage input. During conversations, try asking some of the following questions or posing these conversation starters:

  • ‘I’m struggling with this part of the project. Could you help me?’
  • ‘So, this didn’t go quite to plan! But here’s what I learned…’
  • ‘What ideas do you have to approach this challenge?’

 

  1. Be More HIP

Radical Candor, devised by Kim Scott and Jason Rosoff, is an approach to feedback that is all about caring personally while challenging directly. At its core, Radical Candor is guidance and feedback that’s both kind and clear, specific and sincere.

Feedback is incredibly important for psychological safety and will thrive in a safe, open environment with stronger more trusting relationships, more opportunities for risk-taking and learning from mistakes creating better employee experiences. Here’s a way to think about how to be more kind and clear with criticism and more specific and sincere with praise.

Practice being HIP with your feedback:

  • Humble
  • Helpful
  • Immediate
  • In person
  • Private criticism / Public praise
  • Not about Personality

This will help to improve work relationships and connections and can be practiced between peers as well as by leaders and managers. This HIP article explains more.

 

In summary

These 5 practices could make a world of difference for Toby, Katy and Steph, helping them to feel safe sharing the knowledge that’s so critically valuable to their organisation. That’s a win-win result. None of them cost a penny, and all can be achieved through virtual channels if needed. By finding ways to build them into daily practices, we can create that safe space for employees to  thrive.

 

 

 

“The guys at Alive understand the complexities of our business which means we don’t need to explain the detail of every project or design piece – they’re already on it, which keeps things moving and delivers the results we need.”

Emily Stoten — Head of Marketing, Selecta

“I feel like they own and care for the project as much as we do! I would not use anyone else for my creative work and think Alive is ahead of the game.”

Jo Hobbs — Communications Manager

“Thanks for all your help. We are delighted with the campaign, both in terms of the creativity and messaging but also the thought taken over the rollout of the materials. All looks absolutely fabulous!”

Sarah Crowdy — Campaign and Media Officer Communications, South East Water

“We went to ‘Alive’ for ideas on how to run a specific employee program in Europe. Alan and his team were brilliant in coming up with fresh, creative and practical approaches. The team took charge and executed brilliantly. We are pleased with the progress made so far and hope to have the same level of partnership and commitment going forward.”

Sobha Varghese — Tata Consultancy Services

“So glad that we chose Alive to create our new website. As well as taking the time to get the visual side of our requirement right, they worked with us to understand us, our business and our clients and reflect this across the site. We loved their flexible approach, which, coupled with the right level of challenge has replaced our old, clunky site with one we can be proud of. ”

Victoria Ford — Perago

“Alive were there to help when we were working every hour to respond to the coronavirus outbreak. They gave us the creativity, ideas and support we needed to deliver campaigns which empowered our residents in the most difficult time most of us have ever seen, personally and professionally. The team understood what we needed, worked closely with us and delivered fast without any compromise on quality. Working with Alive has been a joy in the darkest of times and I have no doubt will have helped to save lives. Thanks team x”

Julie Odams, Assistant Director of Communications & Customers — Derbyshire County Council

“Alive with Ideas was able to help transform the visual layout for our RSVP invite into an crisp, vibrant, and eye-catching design. Each time I work with the team, I am always stunned at the effort and creativity that goes into each detail and am always eager for the end result. The team is extremely accommodating and always provide a fresh approach to our projects that elevates our communications materials!”

Alana Khaytin, Communications Specialist — Braskem America

“If you are looking to improve creativity and build teamwork, I highly recommend a session like this for your team. No matter where you are in your creativity journey, a workshop like this can give your team a boost of energy and ideas to invigorate their creative thinking.”

Amy Lilja, IC Manager — Hennepin Healthcare

“This is brilliant. I wanted to give my heartfelt thanks to all of the team who worked on this. You all understood exactly what we wanted to communicate and why, and then managed to do it in a way that was far better than anything I could have imagined. I’m a bit choked up to be honest!”

Sarah Wright, Head of Communications and Campaigns — NEA

“This looks amazing - brought a smile to my face scrolling through it :-)”

Jack Ford, Head of Marketing — streamGO

“Love it. I will pass to the boss, but I think it's awesome.”

Matt Fletcher — Met Police

“We worked with the team at Alive to create our staff recognition video.
At a time like this, its never been more important to share the amazing work that our staff have done and continue to do on a daily basis under very difficult circumstances. We wanted to shout about this and recognise that when the time came, South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue stepped up to the plate. We didn’t want an ordinary thank you post on social media or a basic email sent out internally, we wanted something special. Enter Alive. ”

Emma Wright — South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue

“The (Alive) team were able to creatively pull together and document (in just over 2minutes) everything our service has achieved over the last few months, from thousands of prescriptions deliveries to hundreds of phone calls made to the vulnerable. The final product was so powerful and reflective of what our service has and continues to achieve. It couldn’t have been better received within the service – thanks Alive for once again helping us to communicate our vision!’”

Emma Wright — South Yorkshire & Rescue

“Boom!
Thank you so much. Incredible work done at incredible speed by incredible people.
Outstanding work as ever and what a turnaround. As for the concepts – wow. These are that good it would be an insult to describe them as just good. It’s a joke, quite frankly. This is exactly the Alive effect I was after. Right now I feel like I am living in an Alive With Ideas wonderland. Thank you!”

Jack Grasby, Campaigns Manager — SYFR

“Our company is fun, we have great brands, but most importantly we’re all about our people – and I wanted an agency who would understand that and help us bring it to life through our website and other comms. Straight away I felt that Alive ‘got’ us and provided the creative inspiration exactly where we needed it, as well as the technical expertise to deliver a well-functioning website.”

Keren McCarron, Head of Corporate Affairs & Communications — KP Snacks

“Alive were professional, friendly and great to work with. Most importantly they were creative, helping us to bring an extremely important safety campaign to life.”

Jack Grasby — South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue

“Alive helped us create a video of our response to the floods of winter 2019. Our Chief Officer received messages from all round the country praising us for it and was really pleased with both the video and the response to it.”

Alexander Mills, Communications Manager — South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue

“I have worked with Alive with Ideas for many years now and they are by far the best Ideas and design company I have ever worked with (I’d even go as far as to say the best company of any sort that I’ve ever worked with). They are an incredibly talented and creative team, who are normal human beings, completely grounded, totally down to earth, approachable, friendly and an overall joy to work with.”

Steph Tranter, Hybrid Exec Coach & Psychologist — StephTranter.com

“Alive are unique in how much they deeply listen and invest in you and your ideas. I have not come across a company that listens as much as they do to ensure your needs are understood and met (actually - they always exceed my needs and expectations). Everyone I recommend Alive to has an equally brilliant experience. When you work with Alive, you are not only getting some genius creativity brought into your life, you are also hanging out with some of the best examples of human beings I’ve ever known.”

Steph Tranter, Hybrid Exec Coach & Psychologist — StephTranter.com

“What I really appreciate about Alive is that they work with us as partners, and care as much about getting it right for our patients as we do.”

Sara Langston, Patient Engagement & Marketing Manager — italk

“We got 'Alive' involved to help us shift mindsets across our organisation and they delivered! Using simple, clear and creative ideas the team have delivered us a campaign which has seen a dramatic increase in idea sharing and development. They’ve also played a significant role in creating a culture of shared success. I wouldn’t hesitate to work with again, in fact, we already are!”

Gavin Buckle — B&Q