5 Tips for Fostering Psychological Safety in Your Workplace

Wendy Loewen

psychological safety, workplace culture, leadership

This past week I read an article by leadership scholar, Amy Edmondson, on learning behavior in work teams. It struck me as both simple and profound. Although it was written in 1999, it seems particularly relevant today. Edmondson’s research points out that most organizations are not adaptive in new situations – they simply wait for things to return to the way they were. In doing so, these organizations miss the opportunities for growth that change and crisis can bring.

Her research concerns me when I think about the new reality of living and working during the COVID-19 pandemic. But how do we change and adapt when faced with a crisis? How can we avoid the common pitfall of inflexibility that Edmondson describes?

When the conditions for psychological safety are set, not only do individuals learn, but teams and organizations get to develop as a collective. As we adapt to COVID-19 – both now and in the future – we need to create psychological safety in our organizations.

Here are five ways that can help build psychological safety so we can emerge from this pandemic stronger, better, and different than we were going in:

1. Don’t let people disappear

With many of us working remotely, it’s easy to shortchange connection and feedback. Recently, my son told me about one of his friends who works for a large company. This friend lives alone and now works alone. Instead of being a part of a bustling office, he spends his days with the same four walls of his apartment for company. He is competent, hardworking, and puts in long hours, but has not heard a word of affirmation or feedback about the work he is doing. He is feeling undervalued and like he has disappeared. This week he called his direct supervisor to ask for a performance evaluation!

Let’s not wait until our employees or coworkers ask. Instead, make more of an effort to reach out, communicate, and give feedback. Remember, affirmations are powerful.

As we adapt to COVID-19 – both now and in the future – we need to create psychological safety in our organizations.

2. Encourage people to share their perspectives

Each one of the members on our team have unique knowledge. When teams meet, they often focus on what they all know and understand, and then make their decisions only using this shared group knowledge. Virtual meetings can make it even more difficult for each team member to share their individual perspective. However, using only collective knowledge limits the scope and validity of decisions that are made.

Keeping expectations clear, asking members to prepare in advance, expecting input from each and every member, and encouraging differing perspectives will facilitate better decisions and build accountability.

3. Lose the militaristic language

Currently, there is a lot of militaristic language used in our “battle” with COVID-19, in the hopes of inspiring engagement. These battle cries imply that our staff are warriors, not people who are working in unsettling times. The message is that our team members should soldier on and take one for the team.

What our team members need is not a call to arms, but rather care and support (which leads to my next point).

4. Ask employees what they need

Especially in times such as these, our team members may be apprehensive to ask for help or admit that they are finding a task difficult or overwhelming (especially if we use militaristic language!). Many employees I know are secretly afraid that they will be the next layoff due to COVID-19. Many of them would rather have their management be clear and transparent about their decision-making and future plans than kept ignorant, even if the decisions negatively impact them.

Don’t wait for employees to reach out and don’t assume you know what your employees need to feel supported and safe. Instead, ask them what supports or resources they need and do your best to deliver.

Being transparent about the things we try – and the things that fail – will help reduce the fear of failure for your employees.

5. Speak openly about mistakes

When we adapt to change and crisis, we have to try new things and create new processes. Experimentation is a necessity of adaptation, so it should be expected that there will be some mistakes along the way. We start procedures only to realize they don’t work, and things we did a few months ago that worked well are now failing. Our employees are also adapting, experimenting, and making mistakes as they adjust to their new normal.

Being transparent about the things we try – and the things that fail – will help reduce the fear of failure for your employees. In turn, this will encourage your employees to experiment, make mistakes, and ultimately find new ways to succeed.

Many of us are hoping that the post-pandemic future will entail returning to a society that resembles something we are familiar with, perhaps to even forget about this strange time altogether. Certainly, we would never choose the upheaval, hurt, or heartache this virus has caused, and I don’t want to minimize the very real tragedy it has affected. However, I think it’s wise that we already begin to think what might be learned and what could and should change when we move into a post-pandemic world and workplace. You can start by using the tips above to foster psychological safety in your workplace.


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Author: Wendy Loewen
Managing Director, ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership

Wendy is the co-author of ACHIEVE’s book, The Culture Question: How to Create a Workplace Where People Like to Work. The book is available on our website.

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