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  • Writer's picturePaula Schulz

Safe-space at work: How managers create it through psychological safety

By creating a climate of psychological security, your employees and teams can reach new heights - for example, be more creative and communicate more. In this article, you will learn how you as a manager can contribute to this.

What makes for successful teams? This question was asked not only by researchers, but also by the U.S. company Google in the broad-based Aristotle study reported in the New York Times in 2016. Aspects such as a clear objective within the team or a culture of reliability seemed to be important, but the data from over 180 Google teams showed that a climate of psychological security in particular is crucial for a successful team [1].

McKinsey & Company has also empirically examined the construct and, in particular, the role of leaders. The global survey conducted during the Covid 19 pandemic showed that only a handful of executives actually live the behaviors that promote psychological safety in their daily lives. Moreover, according to the study, only 43% of respondents work in a positive climate that is critical to psycho- logical safety [2].

Of course, this should not remain so! Therefore, this article will explain, on the basis of scientifically sound knowledge, which factors promote psycho- logical security and what you as a manager can concretely do to establish such a climate in your teams.

and what you can do as a manager to establish such a climate in your teams.

What is psychological safety? Psychological safety is a mental state that is a basic prerequisite for learning and change [3].


In such a work environment, there is a sense of trust and everyone feels that no team member will embarrass, reject, or punish another for anything said. This feeling is based on mutual respect. It is, therefore, a climate in which individuals can be themselves and feel good about it. In the words of Amy Edmonson, the pioneer of psychological safety:

Psychological Safety is „a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-tak- ing.”

Why psychological security?

Not only Google, but also science could show the importance of psychological safety. Extensive analyses in studies, showed that people who work in a psychologically safe environment: [3, 4, 5]

  1. Were more committed and satisfied with their work.

  2. Were more creative and communicated more.

  3. Performed better work and fulfilled the tasks with higher satisfaction.

  4. Shared more knowledge that can be important for colleagues and team members.

  5. Higher commitment in the sense of a sense of obligation towards the sense of commitment to the organization and a desire to remain in the organization.

  6. additional, voluntary behaviors that go beyond one's own role description and support the functioning of the team and the organization (so-called citizenship behaviors). In a broader sense, this also includes voice behavior, which is understood to mean suggestions for improving current work methods and strategies.

  7. A psychologically safe workplace allows employees to put aside their fear of failure and the unwanted reactions of others and focus instead on development and learning.

Furthermore, when entire teams were examined regarding their perception of psychological safety, it was found that these teams were more innovative [5].

What influences psychological safety and what specifically can you do as a manager? Research has already identified the mechanisms that influence psychological safety. These are presented below with practical tips and recommendations for managers.

Leaders can build psychological safety by creating the right climate, mindset and behavior! (McKinsey & Company)

Direct leadership behavior

Their behavior and leadership style have a significant impact [3]: When leaders are trustworthy, open, integer, and inclusive, as well as coaching their teams, will have a positive effect on the psychological safety of their employees and teams. A consultative and supportive leadership style is also indirectly associated with psychological safety because it creates a positive climate. Leaders with such a leadership style care for team members not only as employees, but also as individuals.


If managers are prosocially motivated, for example, if they actively listen to problems and then help to solve them, this increases their own psychological security and that of their employees. Because they flourish as a result, they can perform better at work and help others more. [6].

Managers must act as role models!

Through their behavior, managers send signals as to what behavior and standards are appropriate, thereby setting an anchor for the desired climate. They define what should be the standard of behavior. In this way, they act as role models and catalysts for psychological security. In this way, they can reinforce desired behaviors. The top management plays a particularly important role, as it acts as a role model for the organization and the entire management team. [2,5]. Practical tips - direct leadership behavior

- Reflect on your own leadership style: Do you lead as described above?


- Check your own communication: is it appreciative, eye-to-eye, dyadic, open and are you approachable and accessible?

- Conduct regular employee interviews in which you not only provide feedback, but also ask for it in order to identify your own blind spots.

- Introduce retrospectives/evaluation rounds to create a safe space in the team to openly reflect on ways of working. Alternative: Fuck-up nights to talk about mistakes.

- Inquire about leadership development programs regarding psychological safety. These are an effective method [2].

If you do not yet find yourself in the leadership behavior described above, don't worry! Other "classic" leadership styles are also associated with desirable consequences due to psychological certainty. These include Shared Leadership (where two people share the leadership tasks) and Transformational Leadership. This style is characterized by leaders seeking to positively transform employee values and attitudes over the long term. Leaders motivate, inspire, stimulate intellectually and provide individual support. [4,5].

Relationship building in the workplace

In addition to a supportive leader, support among colleagues, caring, and trust in team members can promote psychological safety [2,4]. In addition, the organization should offer appropriate practices, such as mentoring and diversity programs, so that it is perceived as a supportive entity and can be trusted. Forming meaningful, trust-based relationships and networks between people in the team and the organization, where the same or similar ways of thinking prevail, also proved to be an important factor for psy- chological safety. Not only individual relationships, but also strong whole social networks - for example, through engagement in cross-departmental groups - between members of the organization can be related to learning from mistakes through a sense of psychological safety. [4, 5].


Practical tips - work context

- Observe behavior and com- munication among employees. Mediate in case of conflicts.

- Through team events, you can create a framework for meaningful relationships and networks to develop.

- Celebrate successes together - physically or virtually through e.g. an MS Team Channel "Celebrating Successes".

- Set individual and team goals.


Features of the workplace and team design

Workplace criteria can also shape psychological security. It has a positive effect if employees are clearly aware of the requirements they have to fulfill in their role and what is expected of them. As a manager, define the role together with your employees! It is also beneficial to send signals to employees that you are trusted, so that they can feel a sense of autonomy. Micromanagement is a hindrance here!

Trust is good, but control is not necessarily better!


Team members must actively cooperate and be able to rely on each other. The team with its tasks is therefore characterized by interdependence. [3,4].

If psychological safety is new territory for you and your team


Psychological safety probably sounds very abstract to most people. Therefore, first create awareness and explain to your team what positive consequences this climate can have. Encourage the team to actively participate in establishing a psychologically safe climate. For this purpose, a joint team meeting or possibly a small workshop in presence would be suitable. An example agenda could look as follows:


Introductory workshop - Agenda

5 min Welcome and goals.

20 min Theoretical introduction.

30 min Discussion: experience and examples.

15 min Importance of psychological security incl. long-term benefits. 15 min Action Plan: Ideas for actions for improvement from the team.

5 min Conclusion & Key Learnings.

Conclusion

A climate of psychological security has become indispensable in a rapidly changing work environment. It has a positive effect on the attitudes, performance and desired behaviors of employees and teams. Creating such an environment must be done by individuals themselves, but managers have at least as much influence. It is important that they act as role models and actively care for their employees so that they feel they can express all their concerns, fears and suggestions without negative consequences.



Explanations Glossary

Psychological safety: Describes a climate in teams in which employees feel safe to express concerns and take interpersonal risks. They feel they can be themselves, open and authentic.

Commitment: Refers to "loyalty to the company," i.e., a sense of attachment and obligation to the organization. This includes, for example, the desire to remain in the organization.


Organizational citizenship behavior: Refers to voluntary behavior at work that goes beyond one's own role description and supports the functioning of the team and the organization.


Transformational leadership: Managers want to positively transform the values and attitudes of employees in the long term. They act as role models, motivate in an inspiring manner, stimulate intellectually and provide individual support.


Shared leadership: Refers to a leadership style in which several people (usually two) share leadership tasks.


Retrospective: Is an agile method that is often used in teams at the end of a work period and offers the opportunity to openly reflect on the way of working in a protected setting.


Micromanagement: Managers have a strong focus on details and do not trust their employees enough, so that they feel the need to control the performance of tasks and to know about everything.

Literature

[1] Duhigg, C. (2016). What Google learned from its quest to build the perfect team. https://centre.up- eace.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/7.1-what-google-learnt.pdf

[2] Hanselman, H. (2021). Psychological Safety and the critical role of leadership development. McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/capabilities/people-and-organizational-performance/our- insights/psychological-safety-and-the-critical-role-of-leadership-development#/

[3] Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), 350–383. https://doi.org/10.2307/2666999

[4] Frazier, M. L., Fainshmidt, S., Klinger, R. L., Pezeshkan, A., & Vracheva, V. (2017). Psychological safety: A meta-analytic review and extension. Personnel Psychology, 70(1), 113– 165. https://doi.org/10.1111/peps.12183

[5] Newman, A., Donohue, R., & Eva, N. (2017). Psychological safety: A systematic review of the literature. Hu- man Resource Management Review, 27(3), 521–535. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hrmr.2017.01.001

[6] Frazier, M. L., & Tupper, C. (2018). Supervisor prosocial motivation, employee thriving, and helping behav- ior: A trickle-down model of psychological safety. Group & Organization Management, 43(4), 561– 593. https://doi.org/10.1177/1059601116653911 Evidenzbasierte Wirtschaftspsychologie –


Author

Paula Schulz, M.Sc. in Psychology: Business, Organizational and Social Psychology

Editor

Prof. Dr. Felix C. Brodbeck Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich

Department of Psychology

Chair of Business and Organizational Psychology Munich, Germany


ISSN 2366-0813

The German National Library lists this publication in the German National Bibliography; detailed bibliographic data are available on the Internet via http://dnb.d-nb.de retrievable.

Photo credits:

Logos: Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich

Title graphic: © unsplash https://unsplash.com/photos/MJAoiige14E

When citing this work, please use the following source citation:


Schulz, Paula (2023). Safe-space at work: How managers create it through psychological safety. In F. C. Brodbeck (Ed.), Evidence-based business psychology, (1). Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. http://www.evidenzbasiertesmanagement.de.


The series "Evidence-Based Business Psychology" offers practitioners scientifically based assistance in the form of dossiers on numerous practical issues in the fields of human resources, leadership and organization.

Evidence-based, up-to-date and with high practical relevance.


The dossiers were prepared by students of the MSc WOS of LMU Munich within the framework of the seminar "Evidence-based Business Psychology". Each manuscript is reviewed by two reviewers from the department. It is our goal to present the relevant scientific research that exists on many practical issues in the above-mentioned areas in a way that is understandable for practitioners and to support it with carefully selected theoretical and empirical source references. Should any errors or dubious evidence have crept in, please contact the editors (see Contact). We also welcome your suggestions and comments on this series.

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