Psychological Safety: Key to High-Performing Employees

A lack of engagement is often treated as a problem of an individual employee and addressed with performance reviews and coaching

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When your employees come to work, do they feel a palpable sense of being on an important mission? At the same time, do they show up as their authentic self? Take an anonymous survey among your employees and if the answers to both questions are ‘yes’, then your company’s culture embraces the concept of psychological safety. But it’s rare.

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According to Gallup, fewer than a third of American workers and only 13 per cent of workers globally feel engaged at work. That’s a proxy for psychological safety: a term coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson in a 1999 paper and deemed essential by 89 per cent of American workers, according to McKinsey.

A lack of engagement is often treated as a problem of an individual employee and addressed with performance reviews and coaching. Culture and fit, however, are crucial when it comes to creating an atmosphere in which employees feel comfortable, and can do their best work.

The question is, how do we preserve engagement and enthusiasm for the work? And how do we get ‘yes’ from employees for the opening question in the next anonymous survey?

Be open, trusting and trustworthy leader

As Ernest Hemingway said, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” Particularly without a physical office, and with employees dispersed across cities and even continents, it is of utmost importance to keep lines of communication free and open. With all the interaction shifting virtually, getting to know your employees and make them feel included in decision making is another obstacle. To overcome these, set up a time with your employees to have a two-way dialogue with them. This will make them comfortable to speak up about any surfacing issue.

Promote a growth mindset

Frame tasks as an opportunity for learning for employees and not just execution. Focus on learning, growing, and developing: failing fast and failing often, and give credit for innovation and experimentation, rather than results alone. This will ease their fear of failing and in turn, spark their creativity and motivating them to take initiatives with a positive outlook.

Admit you’re not perfect

Everyone faces setbacks. Everyone makes mistakes. And everyone has doubts. Even CEOs! When employees at all levels of a company feel that they can raise questions or surface problems openly, the pride and shame that can lead to devastating outcomes or poor behaviour are significantly mitigated. Acknowledge your mistakes, so that employees can acknowledge theirs without feeling anxious.

Encourage curiosity & innovation

Encouraging people to be curious can help them perform better at work. Curious people see difficult work situations in a more creative light. Curiosity is also directly linked with less defensive reactions to stress. Ask a lot of questions and create a necessity for employees to share ideas.

Have zero tolerance for gossip

No one feels entirely relaxed and at ease when there is gossip present because they fear someone is talking behind their back. You can establish a sense of loyalty and pride if there is no tolerance for pulling down the team members. Further, it will empower teammates to use the policy to shield themselves from being drawn into a negative conversation.

Grievance redressal

Workplace dissatisfaction is unavoidable. Unresolved complaints are like loose cannonballs in a ship; if not properly managed, they can wreck the ship. A grievance redress procedure that is clear, transparent, swift, robust, and confidential can successfully help handle workplace issues and perhaps go a long way toward bringing harmony in the minds of the employees. A polished mechanism to address issues raised by employees assures them they are heard at all times.

Promoting self-awareness

When psychologists Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer coined the term “emotional intelligence” in 1990, they claimed that IQ was not the only form of intelligence that mattered. Compassion, empathy, inclusivity, and participation in an organisation can be improved by promoting emotional intelligence and hence, it can be a bedrock for strong, positive company culture. Employees’ self-awareness is the foundation of how they control their behaviours, interactions, and decision-making. Hence, strengthening self-awareness amongst employees through various sessions can be a cornerstone of a peaceful workplace.

According to the World Health Organization, depression and anxiety cost the world’s economy an estimated $1 trillion per year in lost productivity. Against the backdrop of the global pandemic, psychological safety at work is more important than ever. We are over a year into the great social unrest and uncertainty caused by the pandemic. Today, smart employers are those who chose to learn, unlearn and re-imagine while building a great workplace culture and nurtures it for the ‘tomorrow’, instead of hoping for the ‘yesterday’ to return. Our shared humanity should ground us and help us grow and learn, and in turn build a scalable culture in which everyone can speak freely, nurture diversity of ideas and talent, and ensure a constant learning environment that shapes future leaders.