Psychological safety and empowerment: a better match than tea and biscuits

empowerment psychological safety

When it comes to keeping employees happy and engaged, the need to feel psychologically safe is a big one, on a level with fair wages, the staff Christmas party, or lunch.

Here at K&B, we’ve always believed that everyone, from the lowliest of blog writers to the most senior of managers, deserves to feel safe, comfortable and able to take a risk at work. But with concerns about employees’ mental health on the increase, it seems that more and more workplaces are worried that for their workers, this isn’t always the case.

So, what is psychological safety anyway?

According to a study by Harvard scholar Amy Edmondson, in order for a workplace to qualify as a psychologically safe environment, members must share the belief that their team is a safe space for psychological risk taking. In other words, the team need not only to trust each other, but the culture of the workplace must also be free from obstacles that could be perceived as dangerous – such as a lack of positive feedback, coupled with a culture of blame.

Edmondson’s study says that the need for a psychologically safe space is rooted in evolution. Humans, the study explains, process criticism from people we don’t trust in the same way we would process a threat: with an uncontrollable fight or flight response. This kind of reaction hinders our ability to think reasonably, shutting down our capacity to consider the perspectives of others, and turning on our instinct to protect and preserve ourselves.

What’s the link?

This means that in an environment where colleagues don’t trust each other, and where managers fail to communicate save for calling out mistakes, employees will disengage, becoming afraid to ask questions, to challenge processes and to think creatively. Not only will they most likely feel uninvolved with and uncared about by their company, but they will also feel entirely unempowered – trapped in a workplace that is not only psychologically unsafe, but that offers them no way to break out of it (a bit like trying to do a supermarket shop two days before Christmas). Time and time again, we also see this to be true in our own research. We’ve found that when employees don’t trust their leaders, they consistently worry about raising concerns, speaking only through anonymous feedback about the negative effects that work has on their health.

Other studies show that a lack of psychological safety in the workplace can not only be disempowering for employees, but can also be downright dangerous, particularly in jobs with high-stakes, such as in medicine. In roles of this nature, if employees don’t feel safe enough to take the risk and call out mistakes as they see them, the consequences can be critical.

Our very own NHS is a prime example, where the extreme pressures on staff – combined with feeling ignored, undervalued and seeing others being severely punished for their mistakes – has driven morale and levels of psychological safety to rock bottom. A lack of psychological safety can also have an adverse effect on absences, because when staff feel isolated and underappreciated, they are less likely to feel able to speak out and are more likely to internalise their problems as stress.

With the benefits of having an empowered workforce becoming increasingly apparent, the focus on creating a psychologically safe work space should be on the increase. However, with many businesses trying to skip straight to empowerment while underestimating the complexity involved in creating safety, this isn’t always the case. After all, much like a brew without biscuits, it’s difficult to truly enjoy one without the other.

Posted on 30th August 2018 in Leadership
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