Psychological safety at work occurs when employees feel comfortable being themselves and speaking up to voice their opinions, ideas, and concerns at work.
Pooja Kothari, a diversity, equity, and inclusion trainer and CEO of Boundless Awareness, explains, “Psychological safety in the workplace involves cultivating an environment in which all employees are confident that they can fully represent themselves and all of their identities without fear of rejection, embarrassment, or punishment.”
Feeling comfortable expressing your identity and ideas to colleagues and superiors is incredibly important, since it results in career development and innovation. Licensed psychotherapist Tameka Brewington says that when organizations create a psychologically safe environment, there’s a clear structure for employees to learn, and organizations are better able to foster strong relationships where teams are cohesive and work well together.
“Everyone who is working in a psychologically safe workplace benefits. The employees who work in the space engage in teamwork more, collaborate better on projects, have enhanced problem-solving skills, and have better interactions with customers,” says Brewington.
Let’s take a deeper look at why psychological safety is so important in the workplace, how to know if your workplace is or isn’t psychologically safe, and ways to cultivate an inclusive environment for all employees.
What psychological safety means in the workplace
According to Dr. Timothy Clark, author of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation, there are four stages of psychological safety: inclusion, learning, contributing, and challenging. Essentially, once an employee satisfies the need of belonging in their workplace, they’re able to move on to learn and grow by asking questions and making mistakes, contributing out-of-the-box thinking, and challenging the status quo.
Psychological safety benefits every aspect of the workplace. It’s a major key to unlocking innovation in the workplace—and therefore, a key to establishing business success. We already know that diverse teams develop more innovative ideas, and leaders who give equal airtime to voices of diverse backgrounds and experiences are almost twice as likely to uncover value-driving insights. So when employees feel safe to voice new ideas, innovation flourishes.
But it’s not all about business success. Because psychologically safe workplaces allow employees to feel comfortable being themselves, it ultimately leads to a more inclusive and bonded environment.
Kothari tells InHerSight, “Psychologically safe workplaces prioritize belonging. Regardless of their different backgrounds and points of view, all employees need to feel like they belong within their company or organization. An important part of belonging involves being able to bring one’s authentic self into work. In addition to cultivating a sense of belonging, psychological safety at work means that employees feel confident in challenging the status quo and communicating their true thoughts and feelings.”
The safety also binds individual team members to a common goal of success within their company. Brewington says teams will be included throughout the decision-making process and free to offer feedback when they feel valued and seen.
“Leaders are accountable and relatable to the team members. Team members are then empowered to feel connected to the work and a part of the process from the beginning. They take ownership in the execution instead of just completing a transaction,” says Brewington.
How psychological safety impacts individuals, teams, and company culture
A lack of psychological safety has major repercussions for employees, teams, and company culture as a whole. Kendra Surmitis, a licensed clinical mental health counselor, perfectly sums up the impact of psychological safety on the workplace:
“When psychological safety is available and maintained, individuals are more likely to feel a sense of belongingness, motivation, and purpose in their work. They will likely engage with increased ingenuity and innovation, thus enhancing the shared goal. This will enhance contributions to teams and reaffirm a company culture that sustains productivity, which often corresponds to profits and positive company outcomes.”
Here’s a holistic look at how psychological safety impacts your workplace.
Employees and teams
A workplace lacking psychological safety can cause employees to feel like they can’t contribute or disagree with opinions held by leaders, often leading to more anxiety and stress during work.
Kothari says that people with marginalized identities (e.g. BIPOC, trans, disabled folks) are most affected by a lack of psychological safety in the workplace because they already don’t conform to mainstream ideals, meaning that their very existence can feel like a risk. Without psychological safety, these employees feel like they can’t share all parts of themselves and feel forced to suppress parts of their identity.
She says, “When employees feel as if they must hide or minimize their marginalized identities, they’re less likely to feel confident in voicing their honest opinions or challenging dominant ideas. These individuals are already hyper-aware of how they are perceived within a workplace, making it less likely that they will want to draw further attention to themselves by speaking up.”
Overall, teams come to less effective decisions, team members feel like they aren’t heard, and dominant ideas always prevail in workplaces that aren’t psychologically safe.
Without psychological safety, companies have a hard time innovating and hiring and retaining employees with marginalized identities, and they suffer poor ratings on company-review sites like InHerSight and Glassdoor, according to Brewington.
Research from Gallup reveals that only three out of 10 employees believe their opinions count at work. Another study showed that if that ratio shifted just to six in 10 employees, organizations could witness a 27 percent reduction in turnover. Moral of the story, without psychological safety, companies suffer high turnover rates, low productivity, and low employee morale.
Read more: 8 Incredible Ways Women Impact Your Company
Does your company’s culture uphold psychological safety?
Do you hold your tongue at work out of fear of rejection or bullying? Always agree with what your boss says so you won’t get fired? Or do you respectfully play devil’s advocate to ensure all perspectives are heard and considered? Let’s analyze how to recognize a culture that prioritizes psychological safety.
Kothari says psychologically safe workplaces usually foster collaborative, productive discussions where each team member feels empowered to speak up, disagree, and contribute to important decisions. Usually, there’s a zero tolerance for any kind of bullying, discrimination, microaggressions, and harassment, and there’s a culture built on mutual respect.
But how do you know when your workplace isn’t psychologically safe?
Brewington says that these workspaces typically have high turnover rates, suffer from confusion in roles and duties, have a low level of enthusiasm and high level of fear of failure, and are deprived of trust.
According to Surmitis, other signs that a workplace isn’t safe might include a lack of healthy communication and collaboration across employees, poor health indicators (including extremes such as workplace violence, normalizations of discrimination, employee mental and physical health issues, etc), and no clear strategy to maintain diversity, inclusion, and equity practices.
Plus, cultures that don’t prioritize safety lack a diversity of opinions. Kothari says, “A workplace with a culture that doesn’t uphold psychological safety will likely be dominated by one particular demographic group (e.g., white men). Often, people with marginalized identities feel particularly uncomfortable voicing opinions that challenge opinions held by people with mainstream, dominant identities. [These workplaces] likely do a poor job of maintaining employees of color, women, and people with other kinds of marginalized identities.”
7 ways to cultivate psychological safety at work
1. Create employee resource groups (ERGs) for employees with different identities.
Kothari says, “these groups can provide opportunities for employees with marginalized identities to connect with one another, share concerns, and generate feelings of belonging.”
2. Establish and enforce norms for productive conflict in the workplace.
Leaders should demonstrate to their teams how to respectfully disagree and challenge prevailing ideas.
3. Offer training throughout the year.
Discuss how bias shows up at work, in our language, our attitudes and behavior, and how it can affect our decision making. Training on microaggressions and the subtle but painful ways we inadvertently harm each other is also helpful.
4. Hold yourself accountable and own up to mistakes.
It starts at the top—managers should lead by example and always own up to mistakes, demonstrating to their employees that it’s okay to take risks and learn by trial.
5. Regularly acknowledge and appreciate employees.
Brewington says that soliciting feedback from employees is a key way to show that you respect and value their opinion. Plus, show that you care about your employees as people first, taking interest in who they are and what they do outside of work.
6. Show an intentional demonstration of curiosity.
Surmitis says this includes “the normalization and encouragement of asking questions, inviting experiments to enhance individual growth and learning, appropriate risk taking, and the sincere celebration of creativity.”
7. Promote self-awareness in your teams.
When you recognize how you prefer to think and behave, you can uncover biases that might be impacting your employees’ willingness to share their viewpoints.
About our sources
Pooja Kothari is an expert facilitator, trainer, and consultant on equity and inclusion. After witnessing firsthand how deep racism, sexism, and homophobia are ingrained in the criminal justice system as a public defender, Kothari founded Boundless Awareness to address unconscious bias in workplace culture. At Boundless Awareness, she offers tailored workshops and exercises to explore the intersections of identity, language, and bias in a fun, non-judgmental way.
Tameka Wade Brewington is a dually licensed psychotherapist in the State of North Carolina. She has been working in mental health and substance abuse for the past 20 years. Her primary areas of interest include women’s issues, working professionals, and adolescents, with specialization in substance abuse, and trauma. Her title credentials are Licensed Professional Counselor, Licensed Clinical Addiction Specialist, Clinical Supervising Intern, Nationally Certified Counselor, and Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor.
Kendra A. Surmitis, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical mental health counselor as well as an Associate Professor of Counseling at Prescott College. She maintains a private psychotherapy practice in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where she primarily focuses on self-authorship and psychoanalytic perspectives on women aspiring to grow their professional and academic success.