Beyond OSHA: 5 tips for a psychologically safe work place

By Evan Bleier
The Brief
In matters of workplace safety, obviously it’s important that the cubicles are flame retardant and the conference-room ceiling won’t cave in. But structural soundness is only part of the story. 

In a recent study, 30 percent of respondents indicated that their organizations lacked “psychological safety.” And while that may sound a little touchy-feely for the rough and tumble world of business, don’t scoff: It’s absolutely critical to your organization’s well-being.

What exactly do we mean by psychological safety? Simply put, it describes an environment that fosters employee confidence to share opinions and take risks. And according to a study published in Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, it correlates strongly to those factors that help build organizational relationship capital (i.e., those that best promote a strong and efficient network of co-workers within and across departments) and create a “social climate of trust.” Researchers have also found that employees who feel psychologically safe are more apt to “grow, learn, contribute, and perform effectively,” not to mention improve their organization’s bottom line.

It makes sense. Employees who suspect that there will be a consequence to speaking up or out are unlikely to do so; it’s human nature. Problem is, in an age when innovation and reinvention are everything, silence will cripple an organization. Sales, marketing, human resources—they all fail when employees don’t feel safe. But while leadership in psychologically safe organizations encourages open communication, it has to be a two-way street. In a safe workplace, managers need to be able to offer constructive criticism too, preferably of the friendly, but firm variety.

So how do you promote psychological office safety? Here’s a five-step plan:

1. Embrace adaptability. For example, telecommuting options and flexible work hours can reduce stress and boost productivity.

2. Be proactive. Instruct supervisors to empower employees to speak up—and reward them when they do.

3. Loosen up. Let workers make decisions they should reasonably be expected to make, and their job satisfaction will increase.

4. Brook no bullies. According to a recent survey, 27 percent of American workers have experienced on-the-job bullying. Another 21 percent have witnessed it. Bullying exists at all organizational levels, in the form of threats, intimidation, humiliation, sabotage or other kinds of verbal mistreatment. Make it clear your organization has a zero-tolerance policy for all of it, and hold offending employees accountable.

5. Facilitate fairness. Preferential treatment or unequal work distribution undermines feelings of psychological safety, even if only one or two people are marginalized.

Oh, and while you’re at it, you should probably look into those weird noises the elevator’s been making…

Evan Bleier is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Maxim, Huffington Post and United Press International. This is his first post for this blog.
RelSci helps create competitive advantage for organizations through a crucial yet vastly underutilized asset: relationship capital with influential decision makers. 
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