The Power of Psychological Safety: Unlocking Organisational Potential

November 24th, 2023
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Psychological safety has emerged as a transformative concept in modern organisational dynamics. Albeit used as a buzzword at times, it is an important concept to acknowledge, and authentically introduce into organisations, because who doesn’t want to work for an organisation that promotes inclusivity, right? It’s putting it into practice where the challenges come in, because it takes a considerable amount of patience and effort to embed a “concept” into the workspace.

Regardless, just like any transformation in culture and behaviour, the first step is for leaders to understand the impact of how they are perceived by their employees. This helps leaders to gauge more accurately what their organisational culture is like to help them decide if it’s something they want to change. In their journeys to become more psychologically safe and culturally inclusive, leaders need to ensure that their employees feel safe and are willing to express their thoughts and ideas, devoid of fear or negative consequences.

So, what exactly is psychological safety? Often time, it is misunderstood as employees letting their emotions go, doing whatever they want, or taking uncalculated risks in the hopes for the best outcomes. Other misconceptions are that psychologically safe spaces are free of any discomfort and that everything is tolerated. On the contrary, psychologically safe spaces are spaces where:

  • People feel at ease expressing themselves and feel supported in their professional pursuits.
  • People are encouraged and enabled to take calculated risks after considering all possible scenarios before they make decisions because they feel more comfortable questioning the status quo, where applicable.
  • Think tank mentality is fostered and where diverse ideas are freely shared without fear of negative consequences.

Essentially, psychological safety is an umbrella term for all the aspects that speak to empowering individuals to be creatively autonomous at work.

In its formative stages, psychological safety primarily resided in academic journals, awaiting curious minds to uncover its enigma. However, with the progression of the world and an increased shift on the importance of people in the workplace, the influence of psychological safety increased. A significant milestone that attributed to the way we know psychological safety today was when the corporate titan, Google, conducted Project Aristotle in 2010 (Lehewych, 2022).

Project Aristotle was a research initiative conducted to study team dynamics and identify the main factors that contributed to high-performing teams. In the results, an important revelation was how important psychological safety was within teams – the safer the teams felt, the likelier they were to freely voice their opinions, engage in constructive dialogue and debates, admit to making mistakes, and ask for help when they needed it (Lehewych, 2022). This consequently showed that the more inclusive an organisation was, the likelier it was to succeed.

In instances where there is an absence of psychological safety, there can be an increase in disengaged employees, which can lead to lower productivity rates and decrease the quality of deliverables being submitted or the customer service being given. There can also be instances of higher resignations and difficulty retaining and sourcing top-talent, which may lead to an incurrence of expenses on an organisation to ensure it has enough people with the right skills doing the work that needs to be done. These examples are just the tip of the iceberg, and the further one goes into their assessment, the more they will realise the importance of having an organisational culture that promotes psychological safety.

The world is consistently changing and evolving. It is imperative that organisations ensure that they are more agile in their approach to the changes that they need to implement to remain relevant. What is notable in this instance is that organisations do not have to do it alone: people have an inherent desire to belong, form meaningful connections with others, and to be heard. Leveraging on that desire for authenticity and synergy can be attained by driving a culture of psychological safety.

Where there is psychological safety, there is trust and understanding, which allows for an environment that fosters a collective sense of purpose, free of judgment or negativity. When individuals feel safe in sharing their thoughts and ideas, the wheels for collaboration and innovation start spinning. If you’d like to know more about how you can cultivate a more psychologically safe environment for your people, contact IQbusiness as your go-to for all things People Advisory: We leave no human behind!

Authors: Otshepeng Buckwalter, Management Consultant; and Tshepo Ramasimong, Management Consultant at IQbusiness

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