Nurturing a workplace environment of psychological safety

04 May 2023 Consultancy.com.au 5 min. read
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Psychological safety is the latest buzz word hitting workplaces all over the globe, but according to Christina Foxwell, founder and CEO of Ignite Purpose, it is one of the most important issues facing businesses and workers in many years. Foxwell stresses that creating safe physical workplaces isn’t enough, employers must create pyschologically safe workplaces as well.

The Queensland Government is leading the way with the introduction of the ‘Managing the risk of psychosocial hazards at work Code of Practice 2022’ from April this year. The code is a practical guide on how to prevent harm from psychosocial hazards at work, including psychological and physical harm.

“Psychological safety means creating a culture where people feel safe to come to work, raise ideas, ask questions and provide feedback without fear of being punished or attacked,” Foxwell said.

Christina Foxwell, Chief Executive Officer, Ignite Purpose

“That’s why organisations end up with yes cultures where people just toe the line and say what they think everyone wants to hear. They don’t want to rock the boat, so they just sit on the fence because they are scared to be honest and say what they really think for fear of reprisal. They have seen too many people be humiliated and punished for speaking up.”

“While this may be the safe way to get through the day, it is the worst outcome for a business because it means that no one is pushing the envelope, coming up with new ways of doing things, challenging thinking or old ways of doing things, and moving the business forward.”

Foxwell states that psychological safety is about building honest, open, resilient and forward-thinking workplace cultures where innovation and improvement are sought out on a daily basis and people are valued for their transparency, input and efforts.

“The key is connection. It is essential to create meaningful, robust, authentic and positive connections with people in the workplace. This is the first step to building a culture of psychological safety,” Foxwell said.

“Not many people are aware but there is already an international standard for psychological safety in the workplace. ISO45003 is the first global standard to give practical guidance on managing psychological health in the workplace. It guides psychosocial risk management as part of an occupational health and safety management system. This standard speaks to supporting your people’s mental health (fitness) to create a positive ‘safe’ working environment.”

“At Ignite Purpose, we use this framework to assist businesses in developing psychologically safe workplace cultures.”

Key success factors:

For companies seeking to build a culture of psychological safety in their workplace, Foxwell outlines five key success factors:

Connect with your people
“Managers need to connect with their team members in a meaningful and authentic way. Take a genuine interest in their lives. Do this on a consistent basis and ensure this is reflected across every interaction with them,” Foxwell said.

“This builds trust and helps to develop an understanding of their thinking and how they are feeling. People are more likely to open up and be honest with you if they can see that you are making a genuine attempt to get to know them.”

Engage in meaningful dialogue
“It is nearly impossible to engage in meaningful dialogue unless you have a good connection with the people with whom you are interacting,” Foxwell said.

“Everyone has a BS radar and can tell when people are being disingenuous. Connections enable people to get to know each other and build trust. Once you have a good connection, you are then able to talk about things in an open and safe way.”

Explore their talents and interests
“Workplaces are made up of a broad range of people, selected for a particular skill set and way of thinking. Beyond their job roles, they are so much more. Take the time to understand the bigger picture and find out who your team mates really are and what hidden skills, interests and other attributes they offer,” Foxwell said.

“Ask your team members about their interests, hobbies and what skills they may have that you are not aware of. This invites them to contribute in a much more meaningful way to the team and recognises their greater value to the business.”

Seek honest feedback
“It is only possible to seek honest open feedback from people when they are feeling safe. This is the key premise of a psychologically safe workplace. People need to feel safe and know their feedback will be valued and taken on board in a positive way,” Foxwell said.

“If you have a good connection in place and trust has been established, people will open up and tell you what they really think and how they are feeling.”

Encourage innovation and ideas
“Workplaces should be centres of innovation and evolving ideas, this is how they grow and succeed. Often the more radical the idea, the more likely it can be massaged into a new service or product that supercharges revenue growth for the business,” Foxwell added.

“This is why it is so important to elicit feedback from team members in a way that encourages them to speak up freely without concern.  If you are connected and engaged with your team and demonstrate that you value their contributions, then they will speak up and if the ideas are workshopped and harnessed in the right way, the business will benefit significantly.”

“All this can be achieved in a workplace environment of psychological safety if these five key steps are followed.”