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  • Kim Meninger

Psychological safety at work: how to influence it and why you should

Updated: Jun 18

What exactly is “psychological safety,"—and what happens when it’s missing in a work environment?

Psychologically safety at work: how to influence it and why you should

During the prime years of our lives, most of us spend more hours at our job than anywhere else. So when we find ourselves in a workplace that feels bad, it can significantly impact our well-being at the office and beyond.

Psychological safety is a term that has been popularized by Harvard scholar Amy C. Edmondson in 1999 to describe “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” In a psychologically safe organization, contributors at all levels feel safe and supported in ways that allow them to do their best work. Team members benefit, and so does the company as a whole.

On the other hand, in a work environment that lacks psychological safety, employees naturally go into self-preservation mode to protect themselves from real and perceived threats. That instinct, in turn, causes them to:

  • Avoid risk-taking and creativity

  • Show less empathy and support for their colleagues

  • Get stuck when trying to solve complex problems

All of these behaviors undermine individual and organizational goals—while also making work pretty miserable.

But beyond being harmed by a lack of psychological safety, we can also become unwitting contributors to an unhealthy environment.

Feeling unsteady at work can be a major shame trigger. We might feel like everyone else has it together while we're stuck in impostor syndrome and anxiety.

The truth is, psychological safety deficit is never limited to one person. Remember, psychological safety is, by definition, a "shared belief" in safety. So, the lack thereof is a systemic issue, not an individual one.

If you’re experiencing self-doubt, pause and look around. How are others showing up? Are they avoiding risks, stifling creativity, and beating themselves and others up for mistakes?

You will likely realize you aren't alone. You may even discover that—while in self-preservation mode—you have unintentionally contributed to the problematic culture. Often, this looks like a tendency to point fingers when something goes wrong or to micromanage for fear of mistakes. It may also surface as a general lack of empathy for those around you because it feels risky to be that open in an unsafe environment.

How can you use your influence to promote a culture of psychological safety, and what to do if those efforts fail?

Owning our role in an unsafe culture is not a reason for additional shame. This awareness empowers us to either catalyze change or leave a harmful environment.

Here are some ideas to consider if you find yourself in a company without psychological safety.

Build awareness with colleagues.

Some environments are unsafe because of neglect rather than maliciousness. Perhaps a leader is unaware that while they feel safe, others do not. If this seems to be the case in your organization, consider using your influence to speak with your manager. Tell them if you've noticed micro-aggressions, unclear communication, or murky expectations are taking a toll on you and your colleagues.

If you have direct reports, open the door for them to have these conversations with you too. Make things like inclusive decision-making and an "us against the problem" mentality central to how your team functions. If relevant, have conversations about the negative impacts of gossip and blaming to begin to dismantle these harmful practices.

Cultivate more psychological safety in meetings.

Find ways to build empathy and see each other as humans. Practices can be as simple as beginning with a check-in question or five minutes of personal updates to help everyone recognize their teammates as complete people beyond their roles.

Send out meeting agendas in advance to set expectations and allow people to come prepared. During the meeting, consciously give marginalized voices more space to contribute. Shifting meeting norms can feel daunting but can have transformational results.

Determine if an unhealthy culture is a signal to leave.

Sometimes, a lack of psychological safety exists because harmful behaviors are tolerated or even rewarded. In this type of culture, it can be very difficult to effect change.

Ask yourself if your environment empowers you to do your best work and be your best self. If not, know that you have the option to leave. Many people, particularly women, feel indebted to their employer or overly romanticize the benefits of their current role to the point of inaction, even when things are unhealthy.

Don’t stay in an environment where you are not respected. You deserve to feel safe, supported, and fulfilled at work.

Everyone wins when we can bring our authentic selves to work without fear that a mistake will lead to humiliation or severe repercussions.

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