There is arguably only one factor that all companies have in common — they rely on people to make them successful. And conclusively, people — both as individuals and teams — require psychological safety to perform (perhaps now more than ever before with distributed and hybrid work environments). A common definition of psychological safety is the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, concerns, questions, or for making mistakes. As this article will show, the definition takes on different flavours for different leaders and organizations.
Psychologists, consultants, and leading management thinkers have continued to study psychological safety, how to build it, and how it has evolved during and coming out of the pandemic.
To better understand it in 2022, Lainie Yallen — a former student of mine who is now head of growth at TriplePlay — and I interviewed seven top people leaders about their perspectives on psychological safety, the role of relationships in building and maintaining it, and strategies they’ve tested in the new working world. Through their experiences, we identified four key themes that emerged across organizations.
1. The role of psychological safety at work has been redefined, and now has renewed importance
A confluence of historical, social, and economic factors has led to a renaissance for the workforce, redefining the role and importance of psychological safety.
Bhushan Sethi is the joint global leader of the People & Organization practice of PwC, which is among the leading professional services networks in the world. He set the context that we are existing, working, observing, and commenting on psychological safety during a renaissance for the workforce.
The role of business has evolved in society. Business is more trusted than government. Its role is beyond profits and extends to purpose and trust. Stakeholders are arguably more important than shareholders.
Confidence of employees has given rise to more of them to speak up more often. We are witnessing the “great resignation” where employees have more work opportunities and fewer incentives to put up with “bad” conditions. [Note: this is somewhat generational and industry-specific.]
The role of workplace leadership in the lives of employees has changed since the pandemic. Leadership has morphed from “How do we show up as caring and compassionate leaders?” to “How do we care about wellbeing and societal justice?” For the first time, leaders are navigating bringing people back to physical spaces, answering questions around how and when to do this, maintaining inclusive work cultures, and allowing remote work while ensuring equity for their employees.
Psychological safety has different meanings now that we are not always together in physical spaces
The chief people officer at the leading digital employee health benefits platform League, Kim Tabac, explains that culture was virtually embedded into their offices. “You could feel the energy when you walked into our downtown Toronto and Chicago offices,” she said. Since transitioning into a hybrid model, Tabac said League has implemented programs to connect employees and reinforce values and culture virtually. They are constantly programming ways to re-create the “in-office energy” while in a virtual space. We believe this is going to be a big challenge going forward for many organizations.
Psychological safety is a critical piece of the “S” in ESG
ESG outcomes are becoming broader — Leadership is an important component and companies are accountable for their human capital reports and outcomes, said Sethi.
So, it’s no surprise that the topic has been moved up on many CEO agendas
PSP is one of Canada's largest pension investment managers. Its senior vice-president, Giulia Cirillo, suggests that psychological safety and culture have always been a high priority, but now that leaders have had to navigate leadership in a “new normal,” a lot of CEOs have added them to their agenda. A “silver lining” of Covid-19 is how leaders have shifted their mindset around the importance of psychological safety and culture — and focused on it.
2. Fostering connection is at the core of psychologically safe organizations
A second major theme has to do with how connection is important in all directions. According to Tabac, there are three main ways that League brings connection to life for their employees:
- Employees connecting with each other through employee resource groups, employee interest groups, starting with a buddy and mentorship programs
- Employees connecting to the company’s mission and values
- Connecting employee performance to the performance of the organization
Leaders having 1:1s is more important than ever
At the start of the pandemic, when the global employee experience team at the multinational professional services company Accenture undertook deep ethnographic research through focus groups reaching 1,000 people in the matter of weeks, one of the most highlighted practice that was helping people feel safe was “leaders checking in and asking me how I’m doing”, according to Stephanie Denino, global employee experience manager at Accenture. She described that the act of the most senior leaders checking in, not only with their direct reports, but those across their “pyramid,” sent a signal of genuine care. Psychological safety requires that we deliberately tend to relationships — even more so now in a virtual world of work in which it is easy to not feel seen.
Establish and support affinity groups
PSP uses affinity groups both to promote employee connection and advance their diversity objectives, said Cirillo. Gender dynamics, LGBTQ+, Anti Racism, culture and religion, Indigenous peoples, Veterans, People with disabilities, and Diversity of thought and perspective.
Blending the digital and physical will play a role in building social connection.
While virtual socials abounded in the first months of the pandemic, energy for them is difficult to maintain indefinitely. While well intended, they don’t manage to replicate the same levels of fun and ease of interaction as in person gatherings (e.g., how does one leave appropriately? How does one manage taking turns speaking without imposing too much formality?), and can sometimes end up feeling like another video meeting.
Accenture has used virtual reality to replicate some in-person experiences. The ability to be in a group and step aside with someone into your own conversation quite naturally, and rejoin — this kind of fluidity is increasingly trying to be replicated and is important for connection.
Additional themes that we discerned to understand psychological safety in the contemporary moment relate to how rewards and recognition shape psychological safety, and how it heavily relies on leadership. Find out more about these insights in Part 2 of this series, to be released next week.
[Note: This article focuses primarily on understanding and achieving psychological safety for knowledge workers. Psychological safety for skilled workers is more critical than ever, but was not the topic of these interviews.]
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