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Creating braver workplaces

the importance of psychological safety in speaking up


Workplace bullying is now reaching the headlines on an all too regular basis, across public, private and charity sectors - including huge corporations, such as: BrewDog and Apple. Trust in employers has been eroded through the turning of a blind eye to unacceptable behaviour and language. How can we have successful and productive workplaces when people do not feel safe enough in their place of work to speak up without fear of reprisal?

Psychological safety: you're in a an environment of rewarded vulnerability’

Workplace bullying is best prevented by strategies that focus proactively on creating a psychologically safe environment; where people feel able to speak up without fear of retribution. This means that in addition to organisational strategies, individuals must take responsibility for their behaviours and contribution to the culture. The implications for any business are significant. Not just in terms of court cases and legal fees but also brand and reputation, talent acquisition and retention, and the performance of your employees. 


As humans, regardless of where it is; we go into a social setting and engage in the process of threat detection. This might be at school, at work or any social collective. Most of the time it occurs subconsciously but can become more known and conscious if we are more worried about an environment. Threat detection is the process of trying to observe and perceive the environment to determine if it's safe or unsafe. If we conclude that it is safe, we will normally offer a performance response, which means that we will engage and try to contribute as much as we can.


On the other hand, if we conclude that the environment is unsafe, we are likely to offer a survival response. A survival response is characterised by managing personal risk and going into a mode of self-preservation and loss avoidance. We try to figure out, am I in a safe or unsafe environment? Is vulnerability rewarded or punished? Once we have answered those questions we respond accordingly, such as leave the environment.


Workplace bullying is an environment where employees are punished.

Organisations are taking steps to create psychological safety within the workplace, to produce an environment where employees feel they can speak up and share their experiences.


In 2019, Vault polled a thousand HR and compliance leaders and asked:

‘What forms of misconduct do you feel your organisation should address proactively?’


Their research identified that interpersonal misconduct occupies the top three areas that these professionals believe should be focused on by organisations. With the focus on interpersonal misconduct being even greater than that on white collar misconduct. These forms of misconduct will have only increased in 2020 (and onwards) with the impact of Covid and the increase in remote working.


The same poll identified employee empowerment and a culture of speaking up as being the most effective solutions, even more so than the tools, policies and training that are used to achieve a culture of speaking up. What is interesting here is that the most effective methods are all proactive. They are aimed at preventative maintenance of culture, rather than being reactive and focusing on the repercussions of this.


80% of large businesses expect to see their employees taking to the streets in protest of something that has happened at their own company. Vault also found that nearly all businesses expect to see employees speaking out on social media if cases of misconduct and poor working environments arose.


The point here is that, employee empowerment is only good for both the employee and the employer if the focus is on the mechanisms that enable the company to listen and act.

It is not enough to help employees speak up if the company cannot hear them or if they can’t (or don’t) act. Employees need to know that they've been heard, and that action has been taken – that is the foundation for creating a healthy speak up culture.


what really is Psychological Safety?

Dr Timothy Clark has outlined that there are 4 stages of psychological safety™. The first stage is inclusion safety, this is the foundation to obtaining psychological safety. In this stage you feel included, accepted and have a sense of belonging in the environment that you are in. You feel that you can be yourself and that you are not going to be marginalized, embarrassed, or punished in any way. Organisations have diversity, equity, and inclusion departments and resources but why is that? It is because organisations are still struggling to even create 'stage one: inclusion safety' – the foundation of having psychological safety within the culture.


Stage two is learner safety. Learner safety means that employees can engage in all aspects of the learning process - asking questions, giving and receiving feedback, experimenting and taking risks, even making mistakes – without the fear of being harshly criticized or punished.


Stage 3 is contributor safety. Contributor safety means that employees can take what they have learned and use it – they can apply it to make a difference, to join and participate in that valued creation process.


The final, culminating stage is challenger safety. Challenger safety means that employees feel safe to challenge the status quo without retaliation or retribution. They do not feel like they will jeopardize their personal standing or reputation within the organisation.


We can measure a team's level of psychological safety based on these four stages. Currently, only 7% of teams are able to achieve stage four challenger safety, which shows how difficult it is to attain. It is a perishable characteristic that can be reflected by the modelling behaviour of the leader and the accountability that exists on the team.


What kind of stage would teams need to be at to feel safe to speak up? There will need to be a strong sense of inclusion safety within the environment. This foundation would be the baseline – where the organisation's leadership team is bought in to actively talk, or start the conversation, around a speak-up culture and creating that accepting environment. Some organisations will act aggressively while trying to encourage employees to speak up. This intimidation has the opposite effect than initially desired and potentially portrays a disingenuous approach if the environment does not already promote psychological safety.


Do you want to measure your own team's level of psychological safety, to help understand your employees and your organisational culture on a deeper level? Contact us or visit the Psychological Safety Training and Assessment page on our website to find out more information on how we can help you to do this.




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