From Walmart to Lululemon, many workplaces are now recognising the critical nature of having practices to support and promote a mentally healthy workplace. This includes creating an environment where people feel not just physically safe, but psychologically safe.
Defining psychological safety
In 2012, Google started research — code-named Project Aristotle — to figure out what made the best teams. Initially, they thought it would be about the smarts of the people in the group, but in time, they realised it had far more to do with how the group connected and engaged.
A year into the five-year study, they discovered that having explicit group norms was fundamental. The next step was to figure out what team norms mattered the most. Further investigation and research concluded that at the core was the need for psychological safety; a term coined by Harvard Professor, Amy Edmondson.
Writing in the Harvard Business Review in 2019, she said: “Psychological safety isn’t about being nice. It’s about giving candid feedback, openly admitting mistakes, and learning from each other.” It is knowing your team and leader won’t embarrass, reject or punish you, and where there is mutual trust and respect. It is an environment where people feel comfortable to be their authentic self.
The leadership deficit
In many workplaces, those requirements are missing. A Gallup report found that 82 per cent of employees see their leaders as uninspiring, only 15 per cent of employees are engaged at work, while another study from Gallup found only one in three employees strongly agree that they trust the leadership of their organisation.
Research in Australia by the University of Wollongong found half of all employees will experience workplace bullying (including verbal abuse, humiliation, social isolation, withholding information and spreading rumours) during their careers. While Beyond Blue’s 2017 State of Mental Health in The Workplace report revealed that 91 per cent of employees believe mental health in the workplace is important, yet only 52 per cent believe their workplace is mentally healthy.
Caring comes first
To create a psychologically safe environment, leaders need to care and be concerned about the welfare of those around them – be they work colleagues, stakeholders or customers. In doing this, they don’t always put their needs first; rather, they consider the needs of others and take accountability for the impact from their actions.
It’s easy to characterise a caring organisational culture as one that is soft, and not focused on profitable and sustainable outcomes. However, when employees genuinely care about the customer, they will strive to ensure they receive the service or product that meets their needs. When customers are happy, organisation growth follows.
Build the framework
Next, frame the work and ensure everyone in the team is on the same page. You want to establish common goals, clarity on challenges, and expectations on how you deal with failure and uncertainty.
As the leader, set clear goals, responsibilities and ways of working together, and ensure your expectations about workload and deadlines are realistic. Challenge yourself and consider: how are you creating clarity rather than confusion about work, deadlines, dependencies and challenges?
As a leader, accept your role in being curious, humble, open to ideas and having a growth mindset. Be willing to ask questions, listen and have mechanisms for gathering input and facilitating discussions from your team members. Create the best environment for people to share their thoughts and perspectives.
Ask yourself: are you creating an environment where everyone participates, and difficult questions and challenging conversations are embraced?
Set the standard
This approach fails if you don’t respond, set the standard, follow it and behave consistently. Your team will watch what you say and do, and don’t say and don’t do. Praise people for their efforts and remove the stigma that is often attached to failure by focusing on learnings and growth.
When you are inconsistent, unreliable and your processes aren’t clear, your team will see a failure to act as an indication that there is no standard or that it’s inconsistently applied. That will impact how they feel, what they say and don’t say to you, and subsequently, their behaviour and the level of team trust. Check yourself. What actions have you implemented to create a psychologically safe work environment?
Support healthy practices
Lastly, be open with your team about your pressure points and what you do to manage stress and maintain a healthy lifestyle. It helps if you, as the leader, role model self-care behaviours. Encourage your team members to take care of themselves. For example, taking regular breaks during the day, noticing and managing workplace stress, and having a safe space for your team to talk about their mental health and well-being.