Diversity & Inclusion, Learning & Development

How to Create a Psychologically Safe Work Environment Where Employees Thrive

A workplace that promotes psychological safety—the feeling of freedom to be one’s whole self at work without negative repercussions—comes with myriad benefits, from more productive, happy employees to a better corporate reputation. But even more important are the things it can help you avoid.

Fines, lawsuits, bad press—without psychological safety, you can’t effectively prevent these negative consequences.

Whether employees are being harassed, witness a coworker committing fraud, or spot areas of risk in the company’s operations, if they don’t feel safe bringing it up to leadership or HR, the issues will continue to escalate.

Get Management on Board

If your C-suite wants the company to evolve and grow, they need to endorse a culture of psychological safety.

When employees feel they can share ideas and criticisms, you can tap into their creativity. More productive, creative employees mean more innovative projects that will set you apart from your competitors.

But how do you get them to embrace psychological safety?

Catherine Mattice, founder of Civility Partners, suggests surveying employees to determine how psychologically safe they feel at work, then sharing the data with leadership. Executives might think your company culture is fine, but hard data helps “create buy-in that there’s a problem,” she says.

Be sure to include some open-ended questions on your survey. These personal stories and concerns should help tap into executives’ empathy and get the C-suite on board with psychological safety initiatives.

Train Employees on Psychological Safety

Psychological safety training’s ultimate goal is to teach employees how to advocate for themselves and others in the workplace. It should also teach managers how to recognize when the work environment has become unsafe and how to address that.

In your training modules, give employees the tools they need to recognize and handle victimization and avoid victimizing others.

Not sure how to start writing your training program? Start with the learning objectives below, and customize to fit your organization.

Managers should learn how to:

  • Set clear expectations of their employees for behavior.
  • Recognize red flags, and address incivilities before they escalate into full-blown bullying/harassment/discrimination/exclusion.
  • Review and coach employees on not just performance but also behavior.
  • Create a positive work environment on their team.
  • Be transparent and communicative when sharing decisions and information with employees.

Employees should learn how to:

  • Manage conflicts with coworkers in a healthy way.
  • Communicate clearly, constructively, and positively.
  • Treat others with empathy.
  • Practice self-care to prevent burnout.
  • Manage stress to avoid lashing out.

Recognize and Address Risk Factors

One of the biggest risk factors for a psychologically unsafe workplace, says Mattice, is an “us vs. them” mentality.

This can be caused by a lack of diversity, meaning the majority of employees are from the same age group, race, gender, or religion. The larger group might discourage minority employees from expressing their true personalities, exclude them from social interactions, or not give them credit for their ideas.

Or, if you have a lot of tenured employees, they could cause a psychologically unsafe environment for younger, newer employees by refusing to listen to their ideas or accept change.

To address these potential issues, take stock of your internal processes. Evaluate your organization’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) (which contribute highly to psychological safety) by asking:

  • Does our company measure and analyze DEI? How?
  • Are our performance management, promotion, and pay decision processes equitable?
  • How do we support the recruitment and promotion of underrepresented groups?
  • How do we celebrate diverse employees?

A thorough evaluation could take awhile, but creating a safer culture is worth the wait. Don’t forget to review your policies every year or two to stay on top of best practices.

In addition to “us vs. them,” says Mattice, bureaucracy is another major risk factor for a psychologically unsafe work environment. It “makes it really hard for the target to report [wrongdoing] because there’s maybe 20 steps in order to report the behavior.” Slow, drawn-out investigations give the bad actor time to continue mistreating the victim.

To reduce this risk, make sure your investigation is as efficient as possible. Offer employees multiple reporting mechanisms (such as hotlines and online portals) that are easy to find and use. In addition, look into every complaint as quickly as possible to keep both the reporter and your organization safe.

Don’t Operate in a Vacuum

HR initiatives such as harassment prevention, employee engagement, and DEI focus on big-picture behavior, but the nuanced interactions that make up day-to-day culture go largely unacknowledged.

Why do so many HR training modules ignore the prevention part? Civility and respectful behavior are prevention-focused concepts that should be at the forefront of training.

Incivility, harassment, and inequity are intertwined. Addressing these behaviors more proactively will create psychological safety for all your employees, ensuring a positive environment where they—and your company—can thrive.

Lisa Mullen began her i-Sight career in 2021 as the Director of HR. Day to day, Mullen collaborates with senior leadership to create a strategic plan for i-Sight’s employee goals. She also advises the rest of the leadership team on ways to keep their employees engaged while driving success. In addition, Mullen helps i-Sight ensure its company culture is aligned with corporate values.