What is Psychological Safety at workplace?

I overheard a conversation in a cafeteria once between two ladies. One was telling the other how she feels she is outnumbered in her team by her male counterparts. She said that she often felt like she had to raise her voice to even be heard and that was misconstrued as her being aggressive or “scary” – tough to get along with. She was at a loss on how to manage the situation and come out of it. She felt excluded in her own team and didn’t know who to bring that up to and discuss. She said she wasn’t even sure if she should bring this up and wondered if that would make things worse for her in the team and overall in the organization. This got me thinking. Why didn’t she feel safe to stand up for herself? What’s the worst that could happen? Could she not escalate that further if it were to happen?

To feel psychologically safe enough to do something about an issue means to take risks, make mistakes, speak up and question things because it is actively encouraged in the workplace. All without fear of retribution or consequences. Giving people the forum to speak and actively seeking their opinions can be a game changer for organizations. So, why aren’t more and more places doing this? Why are cafeteria conversations like the one I overheard so common?

When an organization invites its employees to ideate with them and speak up, they inadvertently lift the pressure off one or a few people to offer solutions to all problems. A more significant outcome is diversified opinions and perspectives brought by different members of the team. This is invaluable! It offers keen insights and invariably creates a sense of belonging for each employee within the workforce.

In the military, many tactical decisions are made by one individual who is commandeering the battalion. These people are chosen carefully for that very reason. They are decision makers and individually take some big calls. Everyone else in the team understands the chain of command and operates willingly and compliantly within that realm. Working in an organization is very different…well, obviously! But some of the most successful teams are those where the members of a team are often encouraged to speak up and they feel heard, represented and acknowledged.

In our teams, we see so many opinions being shared. There are multiple thought provoking and curiosity led questions that are asked. This makes the others in the room think and reassess their point of view in some cases. This is great! What I feel we need to really focus on now, though, is also being vocal with our feedback. Is it tough to tell someone their delay caused an overall project delay that left lasting ripples in the mission? If you answered yes, let’s talk 🙂

If you answered no, that’s super! I have just one piece of advice for you – remember that there is a very fine line between constructive feedback that would help someone become better at something and blatant criticism. Giving feedback is best done when the intent is to help better the situation and not always the person. Read that again. If one’s intent is not to fix the issue but rather post blame, offering “feedback” is not a good idea at all.

A lot of times, feedback that would help actively remedy something at work is held back because one doesn’t feel ‘safe’ delivering it. This is the feeling that what they would say would not be received well or cause chaos or awkwardness with that individual in the team. And as most human beings do, one tends to avoid conflict or unrest if one can control it. It is important to remember that the outcome of the feedback sharing is better deliverables and higher quality work interactions. Sharing how one feels or thinks is an intrinsic representation of them in the group. It fosters a sense of belonging and truly creates a psychologically safe environment for people to get together and build great products.


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