The concept of psychological safety has been tweaked and skewed over the years, creating high risk in assuming that its definition is an alternate approach for workplace trust.

According to Stuart Taylor, CEO and Co-founder of Springfox, leadership trust and psychological safety must be considered as two separate, but related, concepts. 

“Leadership trust comes from interpersonal relationships and is driven by leaders. A high-trust environment will allow staff to think creatively and take risks. But psychological safety is when staff understand they will not be punished if something fails or goes wrong,” Taylor explained.

“Psychological safety means that, in addition to trust, there is a culture of willingness to experiment, fail, and learn.”

Taylor also noted that psychological safety tended to be experienced at a group level as more of a cultural concept, while leadership trust was very much in the eye of the leader or staff member, and was a more unique, personal experience. 

“In essence, psychological safety is the climate you feel inside an organisation that compels you to either keep your head down or feel willing to speak up and voice ideas,” he explained.

“A psychologically safe workplace means staff are operating with independence and are comfortable to be the first to voice an idea. They aren’t over-caring about the consequences of getting it wrong but understand they’re more likely to be rewarded for speaking up in the first place.”

On the flip side of the coin, the absence of psychological safety often means there is no sustainable performance, plus creativity goes out the window and the ability to grow as a person is curtailed, Taylor underscored.

Today’s leaders, and future leaders, need to understand the myths around the concept, as well as ensure they are continuing to educate themselves and their team in order to successfully create and foster a psychologically safe environment.

Stuart Taylor underscores the true definition of psychological safety.
Stuart Taylor is CEO and Co-founder of Springfox.

Facts about psychological safety

One of the biggest misconceptions about psychological safety is that it’s a ‘nice-to-do’, rather than something that has a lasting positive impact on an organisation and its people.

Taylor offers the following facts and realities:

  • Contrary to popular belief, psychological safety goes beyond workplace culture and well-being and is, in fact, something that can be measured and assessed, and something that impacts your company’s bottom-line
  • While it is a cultural experience, it’s also something that can be improved by the choices that leaders make in terms of stimulating trust
  • Unfortunately, psychological safety is often seen as ‘magical’ or nebular, which results in many leaders disregarding its value and impact
  • Achieving psychological safety does not mean creating a low standard of performance. Many leaders falsely believe that creating a culture of psychological safety means lowering the bar or creating a ‘comfort zone’ where staff feel content to deliver a lower standard of work

How can leaders improve their knowledge and development of psychological safety?

According to Taylor, business leaders can adopt the following strategies in order to ensure psychological safety is consistent throughout a business and importantly, an ongoing priority.

  • Educate leadership teams and staff on the concept of psychological safety and what it looks like. Also seek to understand the benefits that come from establishing psychological safety in the workplace such as higher staff engagement, productivity and innovation, reduced stress and absenteeism/presenteeism, and an enhanced sense of well-being within the organisation.
  • Undertake an assessment of where your organisation is at, in terms of leadership trust and psychological safety. These two concepts go hand-in-hand, so chances are, if one is low, the other will be too. As an example, Springfox’s Sustainable Performance Organisation Diagnostic is a helpful tool in enabling organisations to measure and assess leadership trust and psychological safety in the workplace.
  • Develop a plan. If psychological safety and leadership trust in your organisation requires improvement, what steps can you take to act on this and shift the dial? Consider establishing a set of initiatives over six to 12 months to help build psychological safety and ensure these are tangible and measurable. This could include a new communication strategy to encourage more transparent, frequent communication between leaders and staff, or a reward system developed to encourage psychological safety e.g. rewarding and praising staff for creativity and innovation, even if the desired outcome is not achieved, and encouraging greater discourse around mental wellbeing in the workplace.
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