Economic concerns have many people on edge, wondering if their jobs are secure enough to survive. But while business managers might hear these worries expressed among their teams, they also need to be attuned to what else they’re hearing or—more importantly—not hearing.
Are employees talking about what they are struggling with? Are they asking for help? Are they identifying problems, expressing differing points of view and surfacing mistakes? Are they readily offering their insights, identifying opportunities and creating solutions?
The fact is, if employees aren’t talking, it’s not that there isn’t anything to talk about. With potential layoffs, hiring freezes or slowdowns on the horizon, they may not feel “safe” to freely express themselves.
When employees hold back, the consequences for organizations can be significant, ranging from preventable failures to missed opportunities. As managers prepare to face the uncertainties of 2023, it’s critical to create a safe team environment that encourages employees to “speak up.”
The link between inclusion and psychological safety
In 1965, organization experts Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis defined team psychological safety as “providing an atmosphere where one can take chances without fear and with sufficient protection” from being marginalized or punished in some way. A psychologically safe team environment enables employees to:
- Learn. Ask questions, make mistakes, ask for help, give and receive feedback.
- Contribute. Offer unique insights, ideas and suggestions.
- Challenge. Address difficult topics, offer different points of view and challenge others.
- Feel included or belonging. Feel welcome, involved, valued and connected.
Creating a climate of psychological safety at the team level is one of the strongest predictors of team effectiveness. This is particularly true for diverse teams. Not only are diverse teams better at identifying and implementing innovative ideas; they are also more effective at driving performance and adapting to changing conditions.
Managerial behaviors key to psychological safety
So, how do managers create a team culture that’s both inclusive and psychologically safe? While tone at the top of an organization is certainly important, Harvard professor Amy Edmonson believes that psychological safety is nurtured deep inside the middle of the organization at the team or group level.
In our own research, we’ve found the key is for managers to act in an inclusive way. While inclusive leadership can encompass a wide range of behaviors, our research reveals that the largest impact on employee feelings of psychological safety occurs when managers exhibit a very specific set of behaviors (see Figure 1).
These behaviors include:
- Building relationships. Managers who consistently balance the drive for results with an empathetic concern for the well-being of team members are able to build strong trusting relationships. They routinely look for opportunities to connect with team members and do so in an authentic and transparent way.
- Showing curiosity. They approach conversations with an open mind, actively listening and asking clarifying questions. They routinely leverage the knowledge and expertise of others when making decisions and, in doing so, are able to bring issues out into the open and make them discussable.
- Demonstrating self-awareness. They create a climate of candor. As managers, they monitor how they respond to bad news, dissenting voices and feedback. By responding appreciatively and productively, they make it safe for team members to engage, contribute and challenge.