First a quick biology primer.
Our nervous system is responsible for keeping us safe, for coordinating the body’s responses and maintaining overall homeostasis. The sympathetic nervous system reacts to stressful situations by triggering a fight or flight response. In true life-threatening situations, this is quite literally running from danger. At work, the nervous system reacts in the very same way (increased heart rate and blood pressure, rapid and shallow breathing, release of stress hormones, etc.), and it has evolved as a survival mechanism allowing us to react quickly to threatening situations.
Once the stressful situation passes, and we are safe again, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over to help restore the body to a state of balance and relaxation, slowing the heart rate, decreasing blood pressure, and lowering the level of stress hormones. Prolonged or chronic stress can lead to negative effects on both our physical and mental well-being.
I’ve been trying to write a blog on psychological safety for some time now, but haven’t been able to confidently get my thoughts down. I’ve been left asking myself if it is possible to provide this in times of uncertainty and if so, how do you do it when you don’t have complete solutions? So I procrastinated. Over time, I’ve reflected on this and realized that it is precisely the time to try to explain and provide this to people, but it takes on a different form than I was initially considering.
It starts with knowing when to say “I don’t know”, or “We aren’t sure”, or even “Here is the bad news.” It is acknowledging the uncertainty, and outlining options, ideas and some solutions with transparency. At the root, psychological safety is being able to share perspectives and ideas, to make mistakes without fear of judgment or reprisal. It doesn’t always mean the news is good and sometimes message delivery is challenging. I started out looking for how I could provide a safe space with a good outcome, when of course that isn’t always within my control.
Having said that, it is crucial for organizations to nurture psychologically safe work environments to foster innovation, productivity, and employee well-being. However, it is not the same as employee well-being. Programs to address stress management and mental health support, as well as encouraging self-care practices, are still needed.
Diversity in teams and inclusive practices are another important component of psychological safety. Diverse perspectives are proven to encourage discussion and innovative solutions. In a safe environment, team members feel comfortable challenging assumptions and sharing their unique insights.
Learning mentality is one of the values at Segmed. When a learning mindset is encouraged in a healthy environment, mistakes are viewed as opportunities for improvement rather than sources of blame. Experimentation and iteration is encouraged, and a learning culture emphasizes continuous improvement and development, which leads to innovation.
Emotional intelligence, empathy, and active listening skills must be practiced to validate experiences and build trust. Collaborative problem solving and decision making will enhance a sense of collective efficacy and resilience. It can be more difficult to build trust and a well bonded team remotely. Meeting in person, team events, and solving difficult problems together can bring a team together.
Confidence and creativity in the workplace are heavily impacted by psychological safety. When team members can freely express themselves without fear of being criticized or ridiculed, this fosters a sense of confidence and encourages risk-taking allowing people to contribute to their fullest potential. Creativity, too, thrives in an environment where it is safe to take risks, leading to innovative solutions.
Leading by example plays a pivotal role in establishing psychological safety. Leaders who actively seek input, demonstrate vulnerability, and encourage feedback foster an environment where employees feel safe to take risks and learn from mistakes. A safe environment at work harnesses the power of creativity and diverse perspectives and offers a learning experience. Listening, empathy, and collaboration build trust. All of these things lead to innovation, increased employee engagement, productivity, and ultimately, long-term success for the organization and the people who are a part of it.
Let’s commit to fostering psychological safety at work and unlocking the untapped potential within our teams.