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4 Ways to Communicate Psychological Safety to Employees

Posted by Sandy Yu on 6.27.2019


Employees who feel psychologically safe in the workplace aren't afraid to share their opinions. They don't fear being criticized or punished for making their thoughts known.

This is the ideal situation for leaders everywhere. Unfortunately, it isn’t always a simple process to create psychological safety in the workplace. It’s also not a one-and-done-deal. Those who successfully make employees feel confident they can take risks without fear of negative consequences are focused on constantly communicating with employees to help create a psychologically-safe work environment. 

We found experts who are focused on communicating this to their employees. And when they find employees who feel embarrassed or as though they’ll be punished for opening up, they take immediate action. 

Here’s what they’re doing on a daily basis to communicate psychological safety in the workplace: 

1. Don’t communicate it -- nurture it

Psychological safety is one of three crucial components for employee engagement to flourish (William Kahn, 1990). The other two are meaningfulness and psychological availability. 

You don't communicate psychological safety to employees. You nurture it. You create an environment where it's safe to take appropriate risks and be one's authentic-self by positively reinforcing that behavior in others. 200x200 headshot (30)

When an employee expresses vulnerability or authenticity, recognize it and send a message that it's not only acceptable but desirable. If you believe an employee doesn't feel psychologically safe, it could be the environment or a past experience where they dealt with negative consequences for taking such risks. 

Having an honest and private conversation about what has undermined that employee is a good place to start.

Lisa Barrington, Founder and Principal of Barrington Coaching

2. Create open communication channels

Psychological safety is more important than ever. Although it's always been important for productivity, teamwork, and engagement, the #MeToo movement has created a work environment that has an added layer of complexity. 

Start by offering pathways for employee communication that become part of the culture. If leaders offer any type of suggestion box, it's important that they celebrate the wins that can come from those boxes. 

200x200 headshot (24)It's not enough to put a suggestion box in the break room and never mention it again. Leadership must communicate to employees that their ideas are valued by celebrating the impactful tips. 

Another example of open communication channels is making senior leaders available in non-formal settings. A Q&A in a group setting is less effective than simply being present in the workplace. Sometimes, senior leaders need to, instead, show up where employees are. 

They can have lunch where employees eat or meet where employees congregate to have non-formal water cooler moments. If this is part of the culture of the organization and is ongoing, it can be very effective in breaking down walls. 

Ruben Navarrete, CEO of EmpowerPoints

3. Erase fears

If leaders don’t make the effort to allow truth to guide teams, the true problems of an organization and the best ideas of employees will remain buried in the hearts and minds of their people. 

Fear is the ultimate truth-killer. So a key way to help employees realize they’re 200x200 headshot (31)psychologically safe is to erase fears -- fear of sharing an opinion that might not be the same as a manager, fear of being punished for not being onboard, and so on.

Leaders must make it clear that real opinions are valued and welcome. This starts by showing they’re comfortable sharing their own fears or concerns. Employees will then feel more comfortable because the vulnerability of their leaders puts them at ease and clearly demonstrates that yes, people are allowed to be real and truthful while at work. 

Truth is the starting point, but better communication is grounded in two-way dialogue. Leaders at all levels need to get past just telling. It needs to include listening and true conversation. 

Jim Haudan, Co-Founder and Chairman at Root Inc. 

4. Build trusting relationships

Communicating to employees that they are psychologically safe is really about building trustworthy, respectful, and genuine work relationships. It starts at the basics -- say what you mean and follow through on your word. 

200x200 headshot (32)Interpersonal trust is the foundation of psychological safety. When conflict or disagreements inevitably arise, be quick to make sure all voices are heard and reward people for being courageous and having their own opinions. 

Finally, show empathy. A foundation of psychological safety isn’t just telling them they're safe. It's taking the time to understand employees’ perspectives, emotions, and unique life circumstances. Then, using that information as a positive in future conversations. 

If an employee isn’t feeling psychologically safe, it's time to intervene -- and fast. When people don’t feel psychologically safe, it breeds anxiety, hostility, and, eventually, disengagement. They become defensive, so it's important to adopt a softer, more empathetic tone to your relationship and communications. 

Greg Barnett, PhD, SVP of Science at The Predictive Index


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Topics: employee experience, internal communications, workplace communication, communication trends, leadership communication

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