How to Identify Psychological Safety in the Workplace (or a Lack of It)

20 Feb ‘23
8 min
Work performance
Judith Knuvers
Gecontroleerd door Psychologist Paul Hessels

Do you feel like you can be yourself at work? Are you free to share your ideas, safe in the knowledge that you’ll be rewarded for your contribution? You might not think about it a lot, but that’s exactly what psychological safety is — the degree to which you feel like you can be yourself at work.

 

In recent months, psychological safety has become a trending topic. But what exactly do we mean by psychological safety? And what should you do if you notice that your work environment isn’t particularly safe?

 

In this article, we’ll examine what psychological safety is, explore how to navigate a psychologically unsafe work environment, and we’ll share a check-in to help you determine the degree of psychological safety in your workplace (or lack of it).

 

Psychological safety

 

Psychological safety is a term that was coined in 1999 by Harvard professor, Amy Edmondson. Edmondson describes it as “trusting that it’s safe to take interpersonal risks” – in other words, that it will be appreciated when you come forward with ideas, questions, concerns and mistakes.

 

Conversely, psychological safety also means the absence of interpersonal anxiety: you feel free to speak out without fear of judgement.

 

Think back to a situation at work where your ideas weren’t appreciated or were maybe even unnecessarily criticised. How did that make you feel? How did that impact your work?

 

Sharing ideas and asking questions

 

Expressing criticism at work doesn’t necessarily make a workplace unsafe, explains psychologist Paul Hessels. “Expressing criticism at work is very normal. It’s all about the way that feedback is given and received. Does your manager appreciate it when you give them feedback? And do you receive honest feedback, or is your work excessively criticised?”

 

“Your sense of psychological safety is influenced by internal and external factors,” says Paul. How do you respond to other people? And how do other people respond to you? Ultimately, it’s all about the interplay between these two elements.

When you don’t feel like you can be yourself at work, it affects your work performance, job satisfaction and mental health. So, how can you identify if a working environment is psychologically safe or unsafe?

 

Dimensions of psychological safety

 

A safe working culture allows you to thrive. In their book, Joriene Beks and Hans van der Loo discuss the five dimensions of psychological safety, also known as The Big Five:

 

  • You feel like you belong
  • You feel free to express your opinion or raise questions and concerns, and you’re not afraid to make mistakes
  • You feel engaged and have the sense that you’re making a valuable contribution
  • You feel like there’s space for your ideas
  • You have job satisfaction

 

Feeling safe at work is important for your mental health. But what if you work in an environment where there isn’t psychological safety?

 

How to deal with a lack of psychological safety at work 

 

1. Become aware of your work environment

 

It isn’t always easy to identify a lack of psychological safety, partly because it’s often very subtle. However, there are a number of things you can look out for. For example, an absence of the dimensions mentioned above is a sign that psychological safety might be lacking. Let’s flip that around for a moment.

 

In an environment where psychological safety is lacking, you often feel like it isn’t safe to:

  • Share your ideas, questions and concerns
  • Express criticism/offer feedback
  • Take risks
  • Be yourself

 

You can also identify a psychologically unsafe environment by a lack of trust. This might show up as a fear of not being believed, or a feeling that things you say will be used against you. Other signs of a psychologically unsafe environment are a lack of communication and/or transparency, no privacy (i.e., personal things from conversations are shared with other people), gossip, a lack of boundaries, and an excessive workload.

 

Working in a psychologically unsafe environment can feel stifling and, over time, it could affect your work performance, job satisfaction and mental health. Maybe you’ve noticed that you’re not sharing as many ideas because you feel like there isn’t space for them or that your ideas aren’t appreciated. You might also be too afraid to take a particular step in your career and end up stuck in the same role for a long time. All of this affects your experience at work.

 

Tip: Not sure if your work environment is psychologically safe or not? “One way to figure this out is by discussing it with people outside of your work environment,” explains Paul. “Sometimes a fresh set of eyes can help, for example, those of a friend, family member or psychologist.”

 

2. Write down what’s going on

 

If you notice that you keep running into certain difficulties or you feel uncomfortable about something, write it down. This means that, when you’re ready, you can discuss it with someone around you, for example, your manager.

 

3. Have a conversation

 

Once you know what you’re up against, see if you can have a conversation with someone, for example, your manager. Have you noticed that your relationship with your manager is one of the things you’re struggling with? Then consider how you can have an open conversation here.

 

For example, have noticed that you’re always passed over during meetings, or do feel like your manager doesn’t appreciate your ideas? Then see if you can find a way to talk about this. What do you see happening? And how does that make you feel? Try not to point the finger at anyone right away, but stay true to your own experience.

 

Obviously, doing this is very nerve-wracking. Does speaking to your manager make you (overly) anxious? Then see if there’s somebody else you can go to about this. For example, is there a counsellor or somebody in HR you can talk to about what’s going on?

 

Would you rather talk to someone outside your organisation? Our psychologists are here to help.

 

4. Listen to the other person

 

Once you’re having a conversation, try to really listen to the other person. There’s a good chance that your manager isn’t aware of the unsafe working culture and/or the way that they’re contributing to it. Instead of blaming them, try to be open, to listen and understand the other person. By asking open questions, you can gain insight into other people’s perspectives, increase each other’s awareness and move forward together.

 

Consider how you really feel. If you don’t feel safe having this conversation with your manager or someone else within your organisation, for example, because you’re afraid that you’ll be misunderstood, then talk to someone outside the organisation first, such as a friend or psychologist.

 

5. Don’t be afraid to examine your own behaviour

 

It’s not always easy to take responsibility for our own behaviour, but even if it isn’t our responsibility to create a safe working environment, we can still examine the role we’re playing. For example, are you contributing to an unsafe work culture by being (too) critical, not letting other people have their say or sharing things that aren’t yours to share?

 

Becoming aware of how you contribute to the work culture can make a (small) difference. If you change your behaviour, this can have a positive influence on everyone around you – from your colleagues to your manager.

 

Although it isn’t your responsibility to create a safe working environment, it’s important to know that you can have a significant influence.

 

Would you like to talk to someone about what’s going on at work? Our psychologists are here to guide you. Schedule a consultation.

Check-in: Are you psychologically safe at work?

Based on the Fearless Organisation Scan, a self-evaluation developed by Harvard professor Amy Edmondson, and the work on psychological safety by Hans van der Loo and Joriene Beks, we’ve put together a number of questions that can help you figure out how safe you feel at work:

 

  • Do you feel like you belong — that you can swap ideas and get involved in changing and innovating?

 

  • Do you feel a healthy drive to perform at your highest level and really make a difference?

 

  • Is there a positive energy? Do you have job satisfaction?

 

  • Are people keen to help each other?

 

  • Do you feel that you can be yourself and that you’re accepted for who you are?