How to Build Psychological Safety in the Workplace

The concept of psychological safety in the workplace is gaining recognition. It’s fundamental both to the performance of your charity and to the wellbeing and happiness of your employees. But what is it, why is it important and how can you ensure you’re building it into your organisation?

What is psychological safety?

The term was coined by Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson and refers to ‘a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes’ at work.

It’s more than a buzzword―psychological safety is extremely important to the welfare and success of your team. When it’s there, employees feel able to express creative ideas, share feedback and challenge the status quo. When it’s missing, workplaces are ridden with anxiety, stress and loneliness.

The importance of psychological safety in the workplace

Psychological safety isn’t just a ‘nice-to-have.’ 89% of employees believe it’s essential in the workplace. And a wealth of research has shown that organisations with high psychological safety experience a range of benefits, including:

  • reduced turnover rates
  • more engaged and productive employees
  • lower stress levels
  • enhanced collaboration
  • greater innovation.

Leading tech companies such as Google and Microsoft have identified psychological safety as the key to a successful team.

In CharityJob’s 2023 Benefits Survey, 91% of candidates told us they see an organisation’s culture as ‘important’ or ‘very important’ when applying for jobs. It was rated as ‘very important’ more often than any other factor (including flexible working hours, remote working options and salary). Some respondents added further comments about the primary importance of psychological safety, support and feeling listened to and valued.

Despite all this, psychological safety in the workplace is far from a given. Research by McKinsey (2021) found that only 43% reported a positive climate in their team―the biggest driver of psychological safety. And according to research by The Workforce Institute, 24% of employees left a company because they didn’t feel trusted.

How can you build psychological safety at your charity?

Fostering a culture of psychological safety in the workplace takes commitment, but the benefits are clear. If you’re leading a charity, or a team within one, here are some steps you can take.

employee and manager having an honest conversation

1. Assess the current culture

First, take an honest look at the current dynamics of your charity or team. Are team members open to expressing their thoughts? Do colleagues share ideas freely, or are alternative ways of thinking shut down or criticised?

Collecting anonymous employee feedback via regular pulse surveys can be a good way to assess where you’re at, identify areas for improvement and monitor progress over time.

2. Take ownership

Be clear about your commitment to psychological safety in the workplace. It’s a collective responsibility that should be embraced at every level of the charity―and you can drive it by communicating its importance and encouraging input. Openly acknowledge past mistakes and share what the organisation has learned from them. Progress should be followed up on a regular basis.

3. Check in with your team regularly

Consistent check-ins with your team are pivotal, especially in the context of remote work. Informal meetings can be a chance to get to know your team members, understand their challenges and learn how you can support them.

You could start by sharing your own experiences―for example a tricky meeting you had, or something going on in your personal life. This can encourage employees to feel safe to speak up about themselves. When they do so, be present and actively listen.

4. Reject blame culture

When something doesn’t go to plan, it’s essential not to point fingers at employees. Rather than asking ‘whose fault is it?’, the focus should be on understanding where the process broke down. In these instances, teams can brainstorm solutions and preventative measures to avoid similar issues in future. We all make mistakes from time to time, and these should serve as opportunities for learning rather than as sources of shame.

5. Act with empathy and compassion

If an employee confides in you, how you respond carries significant weight. It’s an opportunity to listen, acknowledge their concerns, show empathy and consider ways you can provide support. Research shows that receiving compassion at work helps employees manage work stress and burnout.

6. Celebrate success

As humans, we have an innate need to feel valued. Wins should be celebrated, no matter how small. By acknowledging these successes, you’ll reinforce the idea that effort is valued and help create a culture where employees feel appreciated. Positive feedback should be shared readily. You could also consider sending personal thank-you notes or doing shout-outs in team meetings to celebrate staff achievements.

7. Lead by example

Finally, champion psychological safety in the workplace by modelling the positive behaviours discussed here.

This means demonstrating your vulnerability―acknowledging your weaknesses, owning up when you make a mistake, asking for help when you need it and valuing other viewpoints. And by being compassionate to your staff, celebrating their wins and helping them identify learning opportunities, you’ll inspire other managers to do the same.

Psychological safety in the workplace is much more than a passing trend―it’s a powerful driver of wellbeing and success. While it’s not always easy, it’s important to commit to keep improving the culture. By doing so, your charity can reap the benefits of reduced employee turnover, enhanced engagement and innovation and improved collaboration.

Have a vacancy to fill? Post a job now.

Tags: collaborative culture, good work culture, psychological safety, running your charity, staff wellbeing, supporting your team, workplace wellbeing

Read more posts like this

About the author

Lucy Hardy

Lucy Hardy is Research Manager at CharityJob.