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Could psychological safety solve the productivity crisis?

Signs of psychological safety include increased communication and transparency at work

Psychological safety is the key to improved innovation, problem-solving and productivity, according to Brittany Schmaling, principal data analyst at HR software company Dayforce.

“In order to build efficiency you need to build psychological safety,” said Schmaling at Dayforce’s Insights conference last week.

Schmaling said psychological safety does not mean employees can constantly make mistakes, but rather that they can conduct educated experiments without being punished.

She said: “In teams with high psychological safety, there are not fewer mistakes. However, workers won’t make the same mistake twice. You’ll see more learning, innovation and efficiency as processes can evolve much quicker.”

Read more: Psychological safety lessons from the LGBT+ community

Schmaling said signs of psychological safety include increased communication and transparency at work.

She said: “There is high psychological safety when people can voice opinions and disagree with each other. It gives people the ability to feel uncomfortable and continue the conversation to find a smart solution.

“In a workplace with high psychological safety you would find lots of communication, with employees asking for feedback and owning their mistakes rather than trying to blame them on someone else.”

When there is low psychological safety, Schmaling said critical information can get lost. She gave the example of the NASA space shuttle disaster, in which the Challenger shuttle broke apart 73 seconds into its flight killing all seven crew members aboard.

“When investigating the incident, it was found there was a profound lack of psychological safety," she said. "Engineers said they knew about issues with the launch but felt afraid to speak up. This is a really good example of how critical information can get lost if people do not feel safe raising problems.”

Read more: How to make work a safe place for mistakes

Measuring the current levels of psychological safety in an organisation can be difficult, Schmaling said.

She said: “To build psychological safety, you have to start with communication. Invite people to tell you what they feel in your organisation, rather than assuming.

“I spoke to a CEO who said in a team meeting ‘I think we have pretty good psychological safety, but do let me know if you disagree.’ 

“Unsurprisingly, no one spoke up. Later, when they conducted an anonymous survey, the results told a different story. 

“So you have to be careful in the way you investigate this and remember that just because you are having one experience in your organisation, that doesn’t mean everyone else feels the same.”

She added that leaders need to be mindful of how their own decisions set an example: “Honesty and transparency are often core values of a company, but writing them on paper is not enough. 

“Leaders need to model transparency in every area. For example, if you’re telling people to be open with you, but refusing to publish things like salary bands, that creates conflicted messaging and doubt about what else is being withheld.

“You have to be vulnerable with your people and open about challenges, while still providing them with reassurance. Vulnerability without a plan builds fear, while vulnerability with a plan builds vital and valuable trust.”