HomeEmployee ExperienceCultureHow HR can help create psychological safety in the workplace 

How HR can help create psychological safety in the workplace 

  • 6 Min Read

Psychologically safe workplaces unlock employee voices, leading to better decision-making and innovation. HR can help build this by encouraging open communication from leaders and normalizing failure as a learning opportunity.

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Julie Smith
Leadership coach,
author of Coach Yourself Confident, founder of Talent Sprout

Psychological safety sets up people – and organisations – to perform at their best. The term psychological safety was coined by Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson, and describes a climate in which it’s OK to take risks, to express ideas and concerns, to raise questions, and to admit mistakes — all without fear of negative consequences. Psychological safety is widely accepted as a critical ingredient for organisational success, so what can HR functions do to cultivate it? 

The impact of psychological safety (or its absence) 

At Organisation A, meetings are characterised by healthy conflict; issues are explored from multiple angles and participants voice differing perspectives. When projects are completed, the results are dissected in a spirit of autopsy without blame. Failures are discussed openly so that learnings can be identified and shared. Individuals offer performance feedback to peers in order to support personal growth. Considered risk taking is encouraged, and intelligent failure is celebrated. Leaders invite challenge from their teams and respond well when this challenge is offered, setting aside the temptation to defend in favour of being curious.  

This climate of psychological safety enables Organisation A to benefit from the full contribution of each of its employees. Candid conversations mean that issues are surfaced early and addressed. The expectation that everyone will share their candid perspective fuels effective decision making. 

Things feel very different at Organisation B. Here, employees are careful about what they say. In some teams this shows up as excessive politeness and a rush to agree, whilst in others it presents as passive aggressive conversations in which disagreement is hinted at but never directly stated. Hierarchy is heavy here. It’s not OK to challenge upwards, so bad news is buried or sugar coated. An unwillingness to offer new ideas and the stodginess of groupthink serve to slow progress on initiatives. 

Whilst Organisation A is adapting to a changing marketplace and results are up, the Executive team at Organisation B are under pressure to arrest a performance decline. Organisation B’s Exec are disappointed and frustrated by the ‘same-old-same-old’ thinking they are hearing and the risk-aversion that seems to permeate all levels of the structure. The CEO realises that culture is an issue and turns to her HR partner for advice. 

How HR can help create psychological safety 

What can HR do to create psychological safety? The first thing to acknowledge as we begin to address that question is that responsibility for organisation culture does not sit (solely) with HR. Culture is co-created and no single person or function can be held accountable for it. HR does, however, have an important role to play in this territory. If you find yourself in a similar position to the HR lead at Organisation B,  let me offer five practical suggestions to build psychological safety: 

Encourage senior leaders to engage in real conversation 

What I’m suggesting here is the opposite of a stage managed Q&A with the executive team. Instead, coach your senior leaders to invite the difficult questions or the unpopular points of view, and (crucially) to respond to such contributions with respect, curiosity and genuine appreciation for all points of view. 

Promote meeting techniques that enable dialogue and equalise voices 

Encourage meeting owners to use ‘rounds’ as a technique to hear from everyone. The simple rule for a round is that no-one speaks twice until everyone has spoken once. A round can be used at the opening of a meeting to ensure that relevant issues are put on the table, it can be used mid discussion to surface different perspectives, and it can be used at the end of a meeting to check for alignment and identify remaining concerns. Training isn’t needed to roll out this simple technique – just recruit a few senior leaders as early adopters and create visual prompts for meeting rooms and branded Teams backdrops. 

Develop leaders to be curious and supportive coaches 

Invest your development efforts in growing the capacity of leaders to coach for performance. When leaders adopt an ‘ask, don’t tell’ stance, they demonstrate that individuals’ thoughts and opinions are valued, and that the best thinking does not reside exclusively at the top of the hierarchy. Exploratory conversations characterised by questions and curiosity are the perfect antidote to any sense that there’s a need to identify the ‘right answer’ or (even more pernicious) to avoid saying anything that might be ‘wrong.’ 

Normalise failure 

Intelligent failure leads to growth. Conversely, failure avoidance leads to missed opportunities. If you’re responsible for internal comms, resist the temptation to only report on good news. Whilst it’s understandable that project leaders might want to brush disappointing results under the carpet, the silence about such projects conveys the idea that failure is not OK. If failure is not OK, then people will avoid the kind of intelligent risk taking that can open up new possibilities. Talk about failure as learning. 

Role model innovative and inclusive problem solving 

Demonstrate that you welcome and value unusual ideas and diverse points of view by involving non-HR people in functional problem solving sessions. This demonstrates the value of the non-expert who can ask the ‘stupid’ (a.k.a. Incredibly useful) question or shine a light on inbuilt assumptions that are constraining thinking. 

Whilst not the sole owners of culture, HR is uniquely placed to steward the development of a climate in which individuals can safely speak up, share ideas and express concerns. I encourage you to experiment with the ideas above, and to keep a close eye on the available data about the day-to-day felt experience of your people – for example engagement survey results or exit interview themes. Building psychological safety is a task that is never complete, it’s an ongoing process of seeing what’s happening, experimenting and coaching your leaders. 

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