Safe harbour: The importance of psychological safety in workplace culture17.03.20
General Manager, OneHub | Recognition
Developing a strong workplace culture is a complex task. Whether you’re approaching the problem through implementing wellbeing schemes, redesigning your office spaces or focussing on remote worker inclusion, it can seem like an insurmountable task. After all, culture is an extensive, multi-faceted concept; it’s basically everything that we do, from the way we speak to each other, to the things we do every day. That’s a lot to keep track of!
However, there are some fundamental elements which underpin all workplace cultures, from local charities to multi-national corporations. These include organisational values, working environment, and social interactions.
Introducing psychological safety
When Google investigated more than 180 of their teams, they found success wasn’t down to the employees’ individual skillsets or experience levels – it was from ‘psychological safety’. Simply put, this is our ability to act naturally around our colleagues, without feeling undue social or psychological pressure to repress our personalities. It’s feeling comfortable to have ‘normal conversations’ with your teammates, and feeling your ‘work persona’ and opinions can align with your ‘home persona’.
Some thought-leaders have also argued that psychological safety is the counter-measure to toxic work culture. But what exactly is psychological safety, and how can we use it in our own organisations to improve workplace culture?
One employee, two selves
Let’s start with the self – or to be more accurate, our multiple selves – when you step out of your house and into the office, there’s a private persona that gets left behind. In some ways that might be a good thing – we probably shouldn’t shuffle around the office in pyjamas as we might at home on a Sunday afternoon.
We all experience a degree of tension between our work/home personas. This is what anthropologists identify in Japanese culture as 'honne' and 'tatemae': our unguarded identities, and the behaviours we choose to display in public.
Social acceptance for survival
Our public personas are developed as a response to social conditions and cultural norms – and that includes workplace culture, too. Just like the ‘fight or flight’ instinct that protected us from predators once upon a time, humans have evolved to create a public face to protect ourselves from social vulnerability (such as feeling embarrassed or becoming an ‘outcast’).
It’s likely this mechanism originally developed in hunter-gatherer times when being socially accepted and remaining part of the group was paramount for survival. Arguably, today’s equivalent of this is the workplace; yes, we can survive if socially isolated, but for the majority of society, a job – and thus, workplace acceptance – is necessary to earn a living.
Go with the flow
You can observe our split in personas in some problematic workplaces – for instance, if asked to complete a task you have concerns about, your public persona automatically suppresses the desire to voice your disagreement or oppose the task. Instead of disagreeing (which might result in disciplinary action) you ‘put your head down and get on with it’, even if you feel the work you’re undertaking may be potentially compromising or even unethical. This is an important way of coping with the social pressures and expectations that were set by the institutions around us, whether they come from employers, government or even your local cafe.
It’s especially noticeable in situations where you have relatively little agency or control, and refusing to comply with instructions could lead to serious consequences. For example, being new to an organisation means you have to learn everything from basic protocol to system knowledge and social dynamics – and it’s a lot easier to just ‘go with the flow’, even if you might have some nagging doubts.
The perfect balance
However, a workplace culture that expects its employees to only bring their public personas to work is heading into dangerous territory: disengagement. If we don’t acknowledge or support employees’ full personalities and identities, we risk creating a culture where employees don’t feel like themselves on a daily basis, because only their public personas are being addressed by the organisation. This has the effect of reducing workers to simply ‘cogs in a machine’, or ‘another part of the furniture’. Simply put, we need to meet the needs of our employees’ whole selves, not just their public personas.
One of the main ways organisations have addressed this issue in recent years is by ensuring that their work cultures mandate tolerance and respect for different ethnicities, religions, sexualities and cultures, while combating intolerance and prejudice. This has helped previously marginalised communities feel more comfortable in their places of work. While this is certainly a fantastic first step, there is a long way left for diversity and equality in the workplace, and it should also be noted that maintaining tolerant workplaces is a legislative requirement in many developed nations.
Moreover, preventing discrimination in the workplace is not enough to encourage psychological safety; it lays the foundations for employees to express themselves as being different from the established norms, but only does so within identifiable categories such as gender, ethnicity etc., rather than addressing the full complexity of people’s personalities.
When it comes to psychological safety, a person’s ability to express their private persona (to an extent within context, of course) is what workplaces should be striving for. In a workplace context, feeling a sense of psychological safety would allow you to report mistakes you’ve made while working, provide feedback to your team or wider organisation, or suggest new ideas to the business.
The north star
With a psychologically safe workplace, employees can feel more comfortable at work and feedback can be reported more efficiently. But these effects also spread across the whole business, making our organisations more responsive to issues as they emerge and improving wider customer service and business success. Rather than working reactively against mistakes that went undiscovered, or having to change course following feedback that came too late, a psychologically safe workplace ensures that information is spread quickly and clearly, as employees have the confidence and security to do so.
More than this, psychological safety helps to tackle the age-old HR issue of retention by developing a warm, welcoming workplace for new hires. Instead of relying on their public personas, keeping their guard up and avoiding potentially ‘difficult’ interactions, employees joining a psychologically safe workplace will be able to join the fold quickly, deliver their best output and provide fresh perspectives as soon as they join the business.
Recognition at the ready
One way to encourage psychological safety in your organisation is through a tool like OneHub | Recognition, the leading intuitive, inclusive workplace app to encourage social recognition and collaboration.
Giving your people the ability to show their gratitude to each other through a familiar, social interface creates stronger organisational cohesion – just as enabling open channels of feedback ensures a responsive and aware organisation. By showing off the best that your organisation can be, you’re also giving your employees something to aspire towards – and if this is run in conjunction with other tools that promote psychological safety such as an employee assistance programme (EAP) or other wellbeing initiatives, Recognition gives you the ability to spread a welcoming and friendly atmosphere through your whole organisation. Perhaps most noticeably, giving your people the ability to use memes, GIFs and video to accentuate and personalise their Recognitions makes for a more familiar, relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere at work where people can truly express themselves and show their human side – and after all, isn’t that what we’re all looking for in workplace culture?
Check out OneHub | Recognition for yourself
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Joining Benefex from her home in Toronto, Canada, Lauren has a wealth of experience in high-growth tech start-ups, and a fierce passion for innovation in tech.
A lover of a good challenge, Lauren says building happy teams is what gets her out of bed in the morning (that and her dog, Mishu, needing a walk). At Benefex, she does this through heading up our market-leading OneHub | Recognition product!
When not at work, Lauren loves exploring the world multi-week trekking, surfing (terribly), and cycling. Her favourite aspects of life in the UK include Sunday roasts at classic country pubs, the sheer variety of regional accents, and the wonder that is Gogglebox!