By: Kellie McDermott

Psychological safety, coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson in 1999, is the absence of interpersonal fear. It allows individuals to perform their best across various life domains, including home, school, and work. Feeling psychologically safe means being able to take interpersonal risks, speak up, disagree openly, and surface concerns without fearing negative repercussions. It nurtures an environment where creative ideas can be shared without fear of judgment, fostering innovation, and creating a stronger, more inclusive community.

Understanding and prioritizing psychological safety remains a challenge for many project leaders, often due to its intangible nature. Yet, its impact on employee well-being and organizational success cannot be overstated. In this article, we delve into the intricacies of psychological safety, its stages of development, and practical strategies for project managers to cultivate it within their projects.

Creating a Safe Haven

1. Inclusion

Acknowledging our fundamental need for connection, this stage encourages individuals to be their authentic selves, fostering a sense of belonging not just within the team but also within the organization.

2. Learner

As curiosity peaks, employees deepen their understanding, soliciting feedback, questioning, and embracing learning from mistakes.

3. Contributor

Empowered individuals actively influence change and contribute to the growth and development of the organization.

4. Challenger

In the final stage, team members feel secure enough to challenge norms, driving lasting and actionable progress within the team and the organization.

Psychological safety is a combination of trust and inclusion. Trust, a strong belief in someone or something built over time, combines with an inclusive environment where employees can bring their authentic selves to work. Contrary to a culture of niceness, true psychological safety enables open communication and fosters genuine connection.

A Win-Win Situation

When employees feel psychologically safe, they are more focused, empowered, and productive. They believe that their work makes a difference and are typically more connected to the organization’s mission. This sense of safety enhances engagement, productivity, and collaboration, resulting in a 27% reduction in turnover, 76% higher engagement, 50% increased productivity, and 57% more cross-team collaboration.*

Setting the Stage

How do we build psychological safety? Project managers play a pivotal role in fostering psychological safety. Effective project managers set the tone for communication, productivity, and performance within their teams. Modeling behaviors that promote inclusion and safety, project managers empower their teams to contribute to a psychologically safe environment.

The primary leadership style of project managers significantly influence psychological safety. Authoritative leadership hinders safety, while consultative leadership, involving team input and feedback consideration, fosters a positive and inclusive environment.

Building Psychological Safety

Performance

Project managers can help the organization reframe organizational goals to emphasize the tangible benefits of psychological safety. Prioritizing psychological safety contributes to increased innovation, encouraging reluctant executives to align with the mission.

Workplace Openness

Recognize varying comfort levels with personal discussions at within teams. Gradually build psychological safety through ongoing and intentional discussions, avoiding the urge to rush employees through the stages.

Curate Learning for 1:1 and Group Discussion

Address psychological safety at both individual and team levels. Upskilling on relevant concepts allows employees to understand their role in either contributing to or solving the issue. Facilitate team discussions to share perspectives, engage in role-playing scenarios, and strengthen team bonds.

Fostering psychological safety is not just a goal but a necessity for creating a workplace of choice. By understanding its stages, recognizing the project manager’s role, implementing practical strategies, and addressing mental health concerns, organizations can build a culture that prioritizes trust, inclusion, and genuine connection, ultimately reaping the numerous benefits of a psychologically safe workplace.

Sources:

2023. Building a Culture of Psychological Safety: Fostering Inclusive and Engaged Workplaces. Blue Ocean Brain: An HIS Company.
What is psychological safety? McKinsey & Company. July 17, 2023.

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