Have you ever found yourself holding back a brilliant idea out of fear of ridicule or dismissal by your colleagues? This hesitation signifies a lack of psychological safety in the workplace. But imagine a different scenario—a workplace where you feel comfortable expressing your opinions openly, regardless of their imperfections. A place where you trust that your team members will listen respectfully and be receptive to your feedback. This is the kind of workplace where psychological safety thrives, the kind needed for employees and businesses in times of transformational change.
Psychological safety in the workplace is a critical factor for promoting employee well-being, job satisfaction, and productivity. Practically speaking, it means individuals can share opinions, ask questions, and express concerns without facing negative consequences. When employees feel psychologically safe, they proactively solve problems. Executives see innovation, job satisfaction, and higher returns. But how can an organization achieve psychological safety?
Psychological safety in the workplace
According to a study by Rockmann and colleagues (2019), workplace psychological safety is closely related to brain functions, enzymes, and processes that regulate emotions and cognitive processes. The amygdala, prefrontal cortex, and hypothalamus are key brain areas involved in psychological safety and emotional regulation. The amygdala, an almond-shaped structure located deep within the temporal lobe, plays a crucial role in processing emotional information, particularly fear and threat detection (Phelps & LeDoux, 2005). When employees feel psychologically unsafe in a workplace, the amygdala can become overactive, leading to heightened emotional responses and a heightened sense of threat.
The prefrontal cortex, located in the front of the brain, involves cognitive processes such as decision-making, impulse control, and working memory. It regulates emotions, particularly negative emotions such as anxiety and fear (Davidson, Putnam, & Larson, 2000). When employees feel psychologically unsafe in the workplace, the prefrontal cortex can become less active, impairing their ability to regulate their emotions and making it more challenging to think clearly and make effective decisions.
The hypothalamus, located in the brain’s center, is critical in regulating the stress response (Ulrich-Lai & Herman, 2009). When employees feel psychologically unsafe, the hypothalamus can activate, releasing stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Over time, chronic activation of the stress response can lead to physical and mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression, and burnout (McEwen, 2007). Therefore, promoting workplace psychological safety is not only crucial for employees’ well-being, but it can also lead to increased productivity and organizational success (Edmondson, 2018).
Enzymes such as monoamine oxidase and catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) regulate emotional responses in the brain. Monoamine oxidase breaks down neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, crucial in regulating mood and emotional responses. COMT breaks down dopamine, which regulates emotional responses and reward-based learning. These enzymes can be influenced by environmental factors such as stress and social support, which can impact emotional regulation and psychological safety in the workplace.
The Practical Value of Psychological Safety
Businesses operate in an ever-changing landscape and a heightened level of transition. To manage the speed of change and keep costs in control, the best executives want every employee working as part of a team. They want teams to become more engaged in error prevention and for solutions to challenges to quickly emerge. To achieve that kind of speed and focus, psychological safety encourages honest feedback, quick adaptation, and personal growth to remain relevant in the market. Consequently, employees are more likely to contribute and help without needing to be asked to do so.
Strategies for Creating Psychological Safety
Creating psychological safety requires ongoing effort and commitment. Here are some tips to help you achieve it:
- Start with Leadership. Leaders set the tone. Effective leaders play a crucial role in fostering psychological safety by modeling desired behaviors, including acknowledging their own mistakes and demonstrating vulnerability.
- Encourage Open Communication. Active listening, non-judgmental feedback, and respectful communication contribute to an environment of psychological safety. Share stories and examples of how psychological safety has improved workplaces, recognize and encourage open communication, and engage employees in collaborative problem-solving.
- Foster Inclusivity. Encourage cognitive diversity as a driving factor for innovation. Create a workplace that celebrates and embraces cognitive differences, where everyone feels capable of sharing their ideas. Train employees to recognize and mitigate cognitive biases that can hinder critical thinking and data processing.
- Continuously Improve. Create an environment where it’s acceptable to make mistakes and learn from them. Regularly evaluate policies and practices to ensure that they support psychological safety, making changes when necessary.
Remember, creating psychological safety is an ongoing process that requires commitment from employers and employees alike. To foster a workplace culture that values psychological safety, promotes well-being, and drives business success is an intentional act of leadership.
Denise Cooper is a executive trainer, author, podcast host, and Chief People Operations at Custom Health and Founder and CEO of Remarkable Leadership Lessons, a company that assists senior-level business leaders and managers in raising their game. Katrina Hardie is a Workplace Wellbeing Culture Consultant who helps individuals, leaders, and teams recognize how their work environment impacts their health, well-being and performance and teaches them methods to turn this around in a sustainable way.
Rockmann, K. W., Ballinger, G. A., & Buckley, M. R. (2019). Managing for team psychological safety. Organizational Dynamics, 48(1), 6-15.
Phelps, E. A., & LeDoux, J. E. (2005). Contributions of the amygdala to emotion processing: From animal models to human behavior. Neuron, 48(2), 175-187.
Davidson, R. J., Putnam, K. M., & Larson, C. L. (2000). Dysfunction in the neural circuitry of emotion regulation—A possible prelude to violence. Science, 289(5479), 591-594.
Ulrich-Lai, Y. M., & Herman, J. P. (2009). Neural regulation of endocrine and autonomic stress responses. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10(6), 397-409.
McEwen, B. S. (2007). Physiology and neurobiology of stress and adaptation: Central role of the brain. Physiological Reviews, 87(3), 873-904.
Edmondson, A. C. (2018). The fearless organization: Creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation, and growth. John Wiley & Sons.