Provision of safety needs for every employee at the workplace is very important. The mental state or mental health of employees is critical for their well-being and job performance. As managers are very much interested in the setting of targets and achievement of same by their team members, they must remember the need for them to ensure psychological safety at the workplace.
The term psychological safety (P.S.) was introduced by Amy Edmondson, a professor at the Harvard Business School. She explained the term as: “A sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up”, and further described it as “a team climate characterised by interpersonal trust and a mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves”. In another respect, she considered psychological safety as: “A shared belief that a team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking”.
Every institution which promotes psychological safety shows respect and recognition to its workers, and creates a sense of belongingness and safety. The workplace environment is not seen as a place of fear and threats. Employees feel treasured. An atmosphere which projects P.S. promotes freedom from psychological harm but promotes diversity, equity and inclusion.
Importance of psychological safety
No employee in an organisation works in isolation. Organisations have teams whose joint efforts are critical for profitability, survival and growth. The attitudes, beliefs, perceptions, feelings and well-being of workers must be managed and harmonised to create an environment of trust, confidence and tolerance.
Wherever there is no or limited P.S., communication is deeply affected. If communication is affected, team work suffers. Under such conditions, critical feedback with respect to a project or market conditions will be lost. Revealing and sharing mistakes will become a taboo. Pertinent job concerns will be hidden. All these may affect successful project implementation. Some employees will not be able to provide constructive criticisms, effective evaluation and control measures to improve policies or projects initiated and championed by influential and despotic managers/directors. The fear of being misunderstood, victimised, rejected or humiliated among team members and among other executives will result in lack of P.S.
The important information and business advices are withheld. Also, operational risks identified are shelved. Employees will remain silent. According to Rosa Antonia Carrillo: “Silence is dangerous in a variety of workplace scenarios, such as when someone fails to report an error or a near miss, or hesitates to ask important questions out of fear of looking incompetent”.
P.S. may promote trust and other corporate values among workers. Barbara Fredrickson from the University of North Carolina revealed that positive emotions like trust, confidence, inspiration and curiosity widen the mind and assist us to develop psychological, social and physical resources. According to her, we become more resilient, open-minded, motivated and perseverant when we feel safe.
The concept of P.S. cannot thrive under the business domain of autocratic managers or directors. The latter will be too domineering. The managers must be good listeners, considerate and tolerant. They must invite questions and encourage their teams to offer contributions without fear. They must motivate their subordinates to speak their minds respectfully and objectively.
Managers must create a sense of belonging and exercise humility by learning from even their team members. They must value diversity of perspectives. In this direction, workers will share their knowledge, experiences and thoughts without the fear of being ridiculed, transferred or punished. Where employees believe that they will not be punished for minor mistakes, they will feel free to be innovative and creative within the regulations of their employers.
Team members and teams within a company need collaboration, commitment, cooperation, consultation, contribution, diverse capabilities and competences to succeed. Teams devoid of the foregoing do not uphold P.S. When workers feel psychologically safe at the workplace, they can contribute positively at meetings, and engage clients, peers and subordinates to solve problems. Furthermore, they can take steps to pursue strategies to enhance corporate image and to benefit clients. They will feel at ease regarding their tenure of office and employment. P.S. will definitely contribute significantly to team excellence. P.S. will also eliminate or reduce the fear of victimisation and unnecessary transfers.
The organisation must handle employees with courtesy and make them feel esteemed. A workplace characterised with fear of being blamed or being tormented, dismissal, arbitrary punishment, rejection, embarrassment, demotion, intimidation, humiliation, insults, threats and conflicts lacks P.S. Managers must eliminate these undesirable and negative emotions and leverage on the full potentials, talents and competencies of team members. The minds of the employees must be liberated and lubricated to brainstorm. Self-confidence must be built and instrumental relationships should be nurtured for excellent performance.
Laura Delizonna, in a Harvard Business Review article (High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s How to Create It) observed that: “Studies show that psychological safety allows for moderate risk-taking, speaking your mind, creativity, and sticking your neck out without fear of having it cut off – just the types of behaviour that lead to market breakthroughs”.
The fear of being transferred to ‘Siberia’ or ‘War Front’ must be eliminated. Gagging of employees must stop. Doing things to prevent them from reporting on feedbacks must discontinue. Remember, when you maltreat employees, they may be wooed and employed by your competitors. He may divulge your secrets tactfully, give out your strategies, release your network of top performers to national or international influential networks of top industry professionals and clients. When they leave your company, you may lose a wide range of things, sometimes a number of prime customers, as well as goodwill. Top performers may also be poached.
Be careful, managers! Don’t let your employees suffer from the fear of being castigated or persecuted unnecessarily. Prevent the use of verbal attacks on workers.
P.S. tolerates diversity of opinions and professional views. In ensuring P.S., the manager must instill dignity and discipline into the employees. This is likely to generate greater than average return. P.S. may also create an environment to unlock untapped skills, abilities, brilliant ideas and ideals, and transform ‘workers with passive hands’ into ‘workers with highly productive hands’.
Finally, keep in mind that the fear that the organisational hierarchy creates or the fear its executives exude, if not handled professionally, reduces psychological safety.
The writer is a Chartered Banker. e-mail:[email protected]