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Psychological safety is a shared belief within a group that everyone should be equally supported. Whether that’s supporting someone with a project, helping them to correct a mistake or embracing their individuality.
Psychological safety goes beyond just trusting the person sat opposite you. It is characterised by interpersonal trust and mutual respect.
It’s hardly surprising that high performing teams display high levels of psychological safety. This is because they feel confident that they can voice ideas or even make mistakes without worrying they’ll get in trouble.
At the other end of the scale, unsupportive teams will be reluctant to share their ideas or hide errors for fear of being mocked, bullied or punished.
It’s hardly surprising that companies with high rates of staff turnover generally have a poor or toxic working environment.
While psychological safety can exist within teams, it’s most effective when woven into the fabric of your company culture. The idea that everyone can be themselves and feel supported should be part of your organisation’s vision and values.
Where does psychological safety come from?
Humans were and are a tribal society. If you trace our roots back to when we lived in caves, the security of the tribe was of paramount importance. It’s easy to understand why; we weren’t apex predators and our shelter was vulnerable to the elements and attack. There were also no medicines so injuries and illnesses were often fatal.
The safety of the tribe was everything. That is why the alphas – the warriors and hunters who put the tribe’s survival first – got their fill of the food and the pick of mates. Because without them the tribe would die.
The tribe pulled together for mutual safety and survival. Every member of the tribe could be trusted because anything less would leave them open to attack, starvation or an equally unpleasant end.
Betrayal of the tribe, such as stealing food or inflicting harm would be met with punishment or exile. If the tribe grew too big or ideas and beliefs clashed the tribe would divide, allowing both groups to survive without risk of conflict or starvation.
This is essentially how early humans spread across landmasses and why they came into conflict.
These principles have been carried forward throughout human history. Ancient civilisations would often make an example of criminals or exile them, leaving them to survive the elements alone. Both served as a stark warning to anyone thinking of betraying the tribe.
Jump forward a few thousand years and we no longer have to worry about large predatory animals creeping into our cave at night. However, psychologically we haven’t changed all that much.
Criminals are removed from society until they have paid their debt and then are often mistrusted or mistreated afterwards. The betrayal of the tribe is not easily forgotten, even now.
The Modern Tribe
Society has become far more complicated. Ten thousand years ago we were part of a single tribe of around 150 people, and possibly a family therein. Today we are part of multiple tribes.
Our families tend to be bigger and can stretch across entire countries, and sometimes the world. Similarly, technology means that friendships transcend borders.
Our interests, whether that’s a love of football or a passion for Star Trek, makes us part of tribes that can be millions strong. We share our passions and experiences via social media, website forums and other platforms and bond with like-minded individuals.
It’s the same if you’re part of a religious community, political affiliation or a theatre troupe. The shared interest or common ground binds us into a tribe that we will defend. It’s the reason why we’re always a little mistrustful of new people. They are yet to prove themselves to the tribe and demonstrate that they are ‘one of you’.
Technology has made it possible for us to be a part of multiple tribes. This can be enriching but the opportunity for conflict increases along with it.
Being part of multiple tribes can result in divided loyalties making life more stressful and can cause anxiety This undermines psychological safety and can make individuals feel displaced.
These modern tribes can fragment and reform which creates high levels of uncertainty. Essentially technology has seen to it that progress has outpaced our mental development.
This is why creating psychological safety for employees is so important.
Psychological safety for employees
While some may see it as trivial to create an environment where everyone feels safe, there are genuine benefits. When you consider we spend most of our time working, feeling happy in that work is important.
Not least because happy employees are more motivated than ones who aren’t. Malcontents are lethal to a business. They can create toxic environments that push good people out of the business or make them just as embittered. This leads to a high turnover rate and inflated recruitment costs.
It’s also important to understand that psychological safety should be coming from the company leadership too. Humans are hierarchical so whereas once those who provided us with food were our protectors, it is now the people who pay our salaries.
The feeling of safety in our job and in our team is, on a psychological level, no different than us being protected from a predator. If employees don’t feel safe, they will very quickly start to act out too.
You can spot toxic cultures from a mile away. Blame culture is rampant, everyone covers their backs and any display of initiative is rare.
Team cohesion breaks down, support disappears, performance drops and dissatisfaction and unhappiness increase. Then everyone starts to quit.
In short, building an environment of psychological safety is a lot cheaper than making no effort with your people.
Not least because employee trends overwhelmingly point to the fact that workers are more likely to take lower-paying jobs if they can work for companies with positive cultures, good work-life balance and good benefits.
Ultimately, creating a positive work environment is good for business because it’s good for mental health.
Mental health issues are one of the biggest drains on the economy, costing the UK economy £150.2 billion a year. This includes direct costs of services, lost productivity at work and reduced quality of life. It also equates to 70 million workdays lost.
This makes mental health the number one reason for absence from work. Although work isn’t the sole or primary cause of mental health issues, it has long been established that they are a direct contributing factor.
Creating psychological safety
The 1967 Whitehall Studies determined poor treatment of workers leads to an increase in stress-related illnesses. Employees who were shown little trust and given little or no autonomy over their work succumbed to more illnesses due to job stress than C-level executives.
This 50-year-old report concluded the psychosocial work environment could predict rates of sickness absence. It also highlighted the benefits of support in workplaces and the positive impact it would have on health, wellbeing and productivity.
Addressing your company culture is more than examining your vision and values. Using behavioural science you can unpick how all your challenges intersect.
You can examine whether or not your managers are demonstrating company values, and how they inspire their teams.
Reviewing incentives and bonuses could highlight an imbalance that is causing resentment between teams.
Examine your sales processes, your approach to meetings, performance reviews, onboarding process. It all needs to be laid out on the table.
More than anything you need to see the exercise as an investment in your company’s future. The days of working in one job your whole life are long gone. Employees want to feel valued and rewarded for their efforts.
Millennials and Gen Z are more likely to quit their job without another role waiting for them than any other generation before them. Because to them, culture and psychological safety matters almost more than anything else.
It’s not something that can be ignored as they are in the workforce so there’s no escaping that expectation.
But equally, ask yourself is it an unreasonable expectation? Don’t forget you’re not paying an employee solely for their time. You’re paying for their skills and experience. You’re also paying them not to take those skills and experiences elsewhere.
Investing in an environment where everyone feels valued and safe takes much of that anxiety, as a business owner or manager, away.
Not to mention you also get to benefit from this new way of working.
If you get it right you’ll be surprised at how quickly the attitudes – and therefore the performance – of the organisation will change.
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