I’m watching Lizzo perform on TV thinking, “It’s about damn time”. Lizzo has been an advocate for body positivity, LGBTQ+ rights, racial justice, and more. She stands for empowerment, self-love, and inclusivity. It was shocking to hear about the allegations of fat-shaming, harassment, and discrimination. Three former dancers are suing Lizzo, and if proven or substantiated, it would demonstrate a clear inconsistency between her very public and inclusive values and her actions. This type of inconsistency can create a hostile work environment.
With over 20 years of experience in HR, I have dealt with numerous cases of bullying, harassment claims, and workplace interventions. During one investigation, I was asked why a particular leader hadn’t spoken up about inappropriate workplace behaviour. I responded that she was likely afraid of backlash or losing her job. I was met with criticism for her perceived lack of courage, which left me feeling judged as well.
A complete lack of psychological safety is the common theme here. This article explores the importance of cultivating psychological safety in today’s workplace.
What is Psychological Safety?
Amy Edmondson developed the concept after researching the relationship between error-making and teamwork in hospitals. She expected to find that more effective teams made fewer mistakes. Instead, she found that teams who reported better teamwork seemed to experience more errors. The data showed that better teams were more willing to report mistakes because they felt safe in doing so.
Psychological safety is about candour not comfort. As Edmonson says, “Candour is hard but non-candour is worse.”
Psychological safety is more than just nodding heads in agreement; it’s about fostering an environment where voices are not only heard but actively encouraged. It’s the space where vulnerability thrives, where candid conversations replace the uneasy silence of suppressed concerns.
Why is Psychological Safety So Important?
As an employer, you have a duty of care to ensure not only the physical health but also the psychological health and welfare of your workers and other individuals. For example, Victoria’s Workplace Health and Safety laws require businesses to eliminate or minimise psychosocial risks.
Psychosocial hazards in the workplace include conflict or poor workplace relationships, job demands, low job control, poor support, lack of role clarity, poor organisational change management, and more. Psychosocial hazards in the workplace sound like “This place is toxic,” “Why can’t they let me just get on with my job,” or “I don’t know what to do”.
Psychological safety lays the foundations for diversity, equity and inclusion. It leads to more engagement within the team. Google did some research on the factors impacting team effectiveness called Project Aristotle. It was a data-rich project which concluded that who was on a team mattered less than how the team worked together because the most important factor was psychological safety.
Moreover, when looking again at Amy Edmondson’s research, it shows that teams with high psychological safety are more positively associated with performance.
The Bottom Line
An average of 7,984 Australians are compensated for work related mental health conditions each year. Compared to physical injuries, psychological injuries usually have longer recovery times, higher costs and result in more time away from work. Psychological safety affects employees’ sense of belonging and influences decisions about discretionary effort, retention and where they want to work – all of which impact an organisation’s bottom line.
How to Select a Psychologically Safe Workplace?
Consider asking questions about the culture:
- Can you tell me about a time a person or team messed up? What happened?
- How do you typically onboard employees, and how are remote employees integrated into the company’s culture?
- Could you share insights, both positive and negative, that you wish you would have known before you joined the company?
- At this company, what differentiates an exceptional employee from a good one?
- What factors contribute to employee longevity within the company?
Understanding these cultural nuances is the compass guiding you to a psychologically safe organisation.
How Can We Hire for Psychological Safety?
Training is helpful but it is not enough. When considering inclusion and psychological safety in a workplace, it’s more effective and sustainable to bring in individuals (especially leaders) who already possess these attributes, rather than trying to mould everyone through training.
Fifteen years ago, I was fortunate to work for a company that intuitively understood the importance of leadership, inclusion and how they impacted performance. Human resources had a seat at the table and influenced the shift to be a more purpose-led organisation where results followed. We embedded values alignment and assessment into candidate selection processes with the commitment to fostering an inclusive culture.
Another lens is the predictors of psychological safety, including fairness, encouraging open communication, actively listening to ensure team members feel supported, and showing appreciation and humility when people do speak up.
Consider specific behavioural and scenario-based interview questions:
- Can you share a specific example of a time when you actively promoted diversity and inclusion within a team or organisation?
- Describe a situation where you had to address a bias-related incident or behaviour. How did you handle it?
- Tell me about a time when you successfully encouraged open communication and collaboration among a diverse group of individuals.
- Share a story about a time when you helped an underrepresented employee advance in their career within your team or organisation.
- You’re launching an initiative to increase diversity in leadership roles, but some employees doubt the effectiveness. How would you address their concerns and gain buy-in?
A more holistic approach to fostering inclusive, psychologically safe and high performing workplaces mean we need to consider how we hire, develop and promote talent to remain competitive and compliant.
Start by prioritising psychological safety and inclusivity today. Embrace candid conversations, empathetic leadership, and diverse collaboration. Let’s create an environment where every voice matters and where high performance and well-being go hand in hand. Take the first step towards a brighter, more inclusive future for your organisation.
By Melissa MacGowan – shilo. Consultant