Building a Digital Employee Experience That Promotes Psychological Safety

Psychological safety might sound like a term relegated to a therapist's office, but that's not the only office where it found a home. While it is essential to establishing healthy dynamics in the workplace, the benefits of fostering a psychologically safe environment are manifold.

Multiple studies have explored and confirmed psychological safety's remarkable capability to strengthen teams and improve their performance. In Google's now famous exploration of team dynamics and performance, researchers found it even more predictive of success than other factors like skill set or seniority.

If that sounds valuable, you're in the right place. We're going to explore the fundamentals of psychological safety, outline some creative ways to build it into your digital employee experience, and connect how efforts like these can help establish an atmosphere that supports and empowers members of your team to share the full richness of what they have to offer.

What Is Psychological Safety?

Coined in 1999 by Harvard's Amy Edmondson, psychological safety is, in her words, "the absence of interpersonal fear." Psychological safety refers to the belief that individuals can take risks without fear of negative consequences to their self-image, status, or career. In the workplace, it's the assurance that employees can express their thoughts, ideas, and concerns openly and without fear of ridicule or retribution. A psychologically safe environment encourages open communication, trust, and collaboration.

Although it may not be easy to quantify, just like happiness or fear, the feeling of psychological safety is clear, and affects everyone in each interaction.

When employees experience psychological safety, they feel heard and aren’t chastised or "called out" in front of colleagues for making mistakes or suggestions that aren't quite perfect. When leaders cultivate this environment, team members share their best ideas honestly.

Let's illustrate a couple of examples with a hypothetical meeting. One interaction will demonstrate a culture of psychological safety, and the other will show a workplace with a defensive culture.

Example 1 — Defensive culture

Alice (team member): I noticed that we've been experiencing delays due to miscommunication between teams, and I have an idea for streamlining our project management process. I think using a project management tool could help improve coordination and efficiency.

Samantha (team leader): We've been following this process for years, and spending time on learning and integrating new tools will just slow the process down even more. Your project managers are responsible for dictating project workflow, and it's your job to follow them.

Alice: Ok, no problem. Sorry.

Example 2 — Psychological safety culture

Alice (team member): I noticed that we've been experiencing delays due to miscommunication between teams, and I have an idea for streamlining our project management process. I think using a project management tool could help improve coordination and efficiency.

Samantha (team leader): Yes, that has been an issue lately, and I appreciate you bringing that up. We need to figure out how to streamline our communication process, and using a project management tool sounds interesting. Do you know of any specific tools you think could address our particular challenges?

Alice: I've done some research on a few options that streamline communications and also offer task automation, which could save us time. If you'd like, I could put together a presentation to present to all the project managers.

Samantha: That'd be great. Let me know how long that will take, and we'll schedule it.

How Does a Psychologically Safe Environment Affect Team Performance?

A team member with several ideas may find themselves offering an initial idea with additional ideas in mind. How the team leader responds will likely dictate whether the team member feels comfortable expanding on the initial idea to generate even better ideas. Unfortunately, a defensive response may shut down the team member's creativity altogether or leave them feeling like they can't share ideas they come up with in the future.

In example one, the team leader is not only closed off to change but also shuts down the possibility of receiving any other useful suggestions by informing the team member that her suggestion is outside of her responsibilities. This interaction may lead the team leader to miss out on the additional opportunities that the team member was poised to offer.

However, in example two, the team leader's receptiveness to the suggestion led the team member to share further information that not only helped to solve the initial problem — miscommunication between teams — but also had the added benefit of task automation, which would save the company time.

The takeaway here is that it's better to explore the idea and see what comes out of it than to shut it down and cut off the chance for additional ideas and benefits that may come after. Creating this kind of psychologically safe work culture:

  • Increases employee engagement: Psychological safety enables employees to express their thoughts, ideas, and concerns without fear of negative consequences. As a result, they become more willing to actively participate and invest themselves in their roles and the organization as a whole.
  • Enhances team performance: Creating a culture of openness and expression without fear of judgment or retribution fosters understanding and a more productive dynamic among team members, leading to improved collaboration and problem-solving.
  • Improves creativity: Team members who feel psychologically safe are more willing to take risks, share their innovative ideas, and think outside the box without fear of criticism or judgment. This sense of safety and acceptance nurtures a culture that encourages and celebrates creativity.
  • Increases employee retention: Companies with a culture that promotes engagement, personal growth, and teamwork have been shown to retain employees at a better rate than others.
  • Leads to more informed decision-making: Information is vital for making the best decisions. Employees who feel comfortable speaking up are more likely to share information that could help leadership make the best decisions for the company.
  • Improves a company's reputation: A company that demonstrates its commitment to creating a positive and inclusive work environment for its employees will gain a reputation for such and be sought after by good employees.

How to Create a Digital Employee Experience That Promotes Psychological Safety

Leaders who want to start building a psychologically safe work environment should first understand that work is about learning, not just execution, and that everything is an experiment.

With those principles in mind, let's explore some actionable steps you can take to create a culture of psychological safety for digital employees.

Reframe mistakes and promote learning

Mistakes offer opportunities to grow, not to feel bad. Making mistakes can even be encouraging at times. Employees who shoot for the moon and miss are willing to take risks. And like all risks, some will pay off and some won't. If employees are afraid that making a mistake will put them in the doghouse, they'll play it safe to stay out of trouble, and you'll never reap the potentially great rewards of their risk-taking.

To benefit from psychological safety, foster a growth and innovation mindset within the organization by viewing mistakes as opportunities for learning and improvement. Encourage leaders to share their own failures and lessons learned to show employees that it's okay to be vulnerable. Recognize and reward employees who embrace challenges and learn from setbacks. Provide training on resilience, problem-solving, and the importance of continuous improvement.

Focus on individuals and teams

Every team member will differ in how they view challenges and opportunities, how they express themselves, and what they value in their team's work. Of course, these teams should function as a cohesive group. But to earn that cohesion, you have to ensure that each team member is taken care of.

Valuing the unique contributions of each individual fosters a sense of worth and belonging, empowering employees to express their ideas and opinions openly. By taking the time to recognize individual strengths and provide personalized support, leaders can build trustful relationships with team members and embolden them to reach for their highest potential in their roles.

Encourage employee resource groups

Employee research groups (ERGs) have emerged as an essential part of fostering inclusion in the workplace. An ERG is a voluntary, employee-led organization within a company that provides a platform for employees with shared backgrounds, experiences, or interests to come together and support one another. ERGs provide a safe and inclusive space for employees to connect, share common experiences, and seek support within the company.

In the digital work environment, where physical interactions may be limited, ERGs play a crucial role in creating virtual community. They allow employees to build meaningful relationships and openly share their perspectives. These groups provide a platform for employees to voice their concerns, discuss shared challenges, and propose solutions. In this way, they can help build a company culture that values every employee's voice.

The sense of community and camaraderie within ERGs enhances overall well-being and job satisfaction, contributing to a more engaged and motivated workforce. By supporting and encouraging ERGs — and acting on any suggestions the ERGs come up with — you'll create a culture of psychological safety where digital employees feel seen, heard, and empowered to bring their whole selves to work.

Foster respect and consideration of all ideas

Every idea, regardless of its origin, should be welcomed in a culture of psychological safety. Remember that psychological safety is based on principles of experimentation and learning. Even strange ideas are worth exploring because something positive could come from them.

This approach also encourages diverse perspectives, which leads to a broader range of innovative solutions and more informed decision-making. In a culture of psychological safety, leaders can still give constructive feedback but in a supportive and non-judgmental manner that emphasizes growth and learning rather than criticism.

Inspire creativity

Leaders and managers are pivotal in nurturing creativity by providing a supportive and empowering atmosphere. Encourage employees to think outside the box, explore new ideas, and take calculated risks without fear of judgment. But it's more than just allowing employees to be creative; you want to inspire that creativity. You can do that by facilitating creative exercises, such as:

  • Mind mapping: This process encourages team members to explore an idea visually and make connections. It helps teams brainstorm diverse concepts and see how they relate to each other, sparking new insights and innovative solutions.
  • Reverse brainstorming: Instead of generating ideas to solve a problem, reverse brainstorming flips the problem-solving process on its head by starting with ideas that would make a problem worse. This not only helps team members exercise their problem-solving muscles, it also encourages teamwork in a problem-solving situation.
  • Trying the SCAMPER Technique: An acronym for substitute, combine, adapt, modify, put to another use, eliminate, and reverse, this technique was developed by Alex F. Osborn, the father of brainstorming. SCAMPER is an effective technique for helping teams build their creative brains.

Create a space for anonymous feedback

Safety is in the name, and people feel safer when their constructive criticism of current leadership and workplace practices is anonymous. In a virtual work environment, employees may hesitate to openly share their genuine thoughts and concerns for various reasons, such as fear of judgment, repercussions, or conflicts. Anonymous feedback platforms, such as surveys, provide a safe and confidential channel for employees to express their opinions.

Anonymous surveys are great for gathering information about what leadership can do better, but they also offer leaders an opportunity to signal their commitment to valuing every employee's perspective, regardless of their rank or position. The anonymity removes barriers that could hinder honest communication and encourages employees to share candid feedback, both positive and critical.

Lead by example

The idiom "actions speak louder than words" can be traced back to the 1200s. It's stuck for so long because of its simple truth. All the talk in the world surrounding psychological safety wouldn't compare to concrete actions of those leading the charge. If you want team members to feel psychologically safe and practice psychological safety with one another, then the first actions have to come from the leaders of the company.

To begin this process, leaders should incorporate the above aspects of psychological safety in each meeting and interaction with team members. This vulnerability will encourage employees to do the same, ultimately growing a culture of trust and authenticity.

Why Psychological Safety Works

Psychological safety has been studied since the term was first coined. Amy Edmondson's initial research found it was associated with learning behavior, and today, 89% of respondents in a 2018 McKinsey survey said that psychological safety in the workplace is essential.

By embracing and finding ways to improve psychological safety in your workplace, you'll find that team members become more collaborative, creative, and satisfied with their jobs.

Ready to take the next step toward building a stronger digital employee experience?

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