Establishing Psychological Safety in the Workplace

March 20, 2024
Companies need to understand how employees' unique characteristics influence how they experience psychological safety.

In the past few years the topic of psychological safety has increased in importance. 

In a 2022 EHS Today interview with Jean Angus, former CEO of Saint-Gobain Life Sciences, expressed her belief that this aspect of safety is a driving force at her company. "Safety is one of the basic needs on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and it applies to the workplace as well. Psychological safety is tied directly to a company’s culture." 

As the field has developed studies are looking into its application. A new guide, Primer: Psychological Safety in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Sessions from McLean and Company, found that not every employee experiences psychological safety in the same way.

"Establishing psychological safety in the workplace is not a quick fix or a simple checklist item on the organizational to-do list," says Elysca Fernandes director of HR Research & Advisory Services at McLean & Company. "Successfully building psychologically safe workplaces requires acknowledging that employees' unique intersectional characteristics influence how they experience psychological safety at work. This is why conversations around diversity, equity, and inclusion are one of the first opportunities to recognize that psychological safety is not a universal experience and approaches to fostering safety must meet individual needs." 

The primer explains that successfully creating psychological safety through an inclusive lens ensures all employees experience the ability to speak up, take risks, and be their authentic selves without the fear of negative consequences, regardless of demographics or personal lived experiences. 

To support leaders in creating psychological safety in DEI sessions and leading with inclusion in mind, the firm has created an overview of each stage of psychological safety, adapted from Timothy Clark's Four Stages of Psychological Safety

The four stages of psychological safety are:

1. Inclusion – Employees feel like they belong and are appreciated for being themselves.

2. Learning – Employees feel safe participating in the learning experience.

3. Contributing – Employees feel safe using their skills, making a difference, and participating.

4. Challenging – Employees feel safe speaking up and challenging the status quo.

Companies can organize the elements of psychological safety at work into specific categories that need to be aligned consistently to foster safety. These elements are :

1. Organizational norms – Shared standards of acceptable behavior that are socially enforced and guide all interactions across the organization. For example, establishing ground rules for DEI sessions where people share their personal experiences.

2. Leadership behaviors – Actions, values, and characteristics that leaders incorporate to motivate their team and achieve their goals. This may look like practicing grace and humility by apologizing for mistakes rather than acting defensively.

3. Artifacts – The organization's processes, policies, and procedures, such as introducing and consistently reinforcing an anti-discrimination policy.

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