Is Your Workplace Psychologically Safe?

Psychological Safety is almost intangible. In that, it is a little like workplace culture. Hard to define at times but you just know when things aren’t right. When environments are not psychologically safe there’s a feeling. Often a deeply troubling feeling or just a knowing that in this workplace you can’t make mistakes, and you most definitely do not ever challenge the status quo.

Psychological Safety is defined as ‘an environment of rewarded vulnerability ‘

Every day at work we can choose to perform acts of vulnerability.

  • Revealing more of ourselves to our colleagues.
  • Sharing our thinking on a problem, or our ideas for improvements.
  • Asking for help if we don’t know how to do a task or want to learn more about something.
  • Owning up to an error – whether small or large.
  • Or challenging ‘the way we have always done things around here’.

But we will only do this if it is safe to do so. If we feel our vulnerability will not be punished.

Psychologically safe environments reward these vulnerabilities because they are environments that are:

  • Inclusive,
  • Safe to learn,
  • Safe to contribute, offering your thoughts, solutions, ideas; and
  • Safe to challenge the status quo.

The latter does not mean it is okay to throw tomatoes at your boss, it’s about respectfully and constructively asking questions that help people examine and question if the way we’ve always things around done here, is still the best way.

These descriptors help us to conceptualise psychological safety.

Why is Psychological Safety so important?

Psychological Safety has been proven to be the single most important factor in high performing teams. It acts as the essential ingredient for collaboration, productivity, and innovation.

Why? Because without psychological safety you lack inclusion, effective collaboration, ideation, and growth.

All things a high performing team needs to be productive and come up with its best ideas for the workplace. And for organisations to continue to thrive in this VUCA¹ world we need psychologically safe teams.

We need teams to continue to challenge and evolve and grow.

For private sector that’s particularly important as a competitive advantage. And, for overworked, compliance burdened public entities – this is essential to create much-needed efficiencies, drive positive change and direct resources to priority areas.

Whilst there are several elements to Psychological Safety I want to draw your attention to one in particular in this blog – that of mistake tolerance.


Mistake Tolerance

A core element of psychological safety is the safety to learn. The reality is that human beings make mistakes.

A psychologically safe environment enables you to learn from mistakes. To reward that vulnerability rather than punish it.

When I talk about this in my workshops I pause here. The issue of ‘mistake tolerance’ as I refer to it often has people shifting uncomfortably and my fellow perfectionists twitching.

Please accept that we all make mistakes. And it’s okay. It’s part of being human.

And yes, sometimes the consequences are catastrophic from one little mistake, which is why having an environment that is safe to learn is so important.

You don’t punish someone’s vulnerability if they make a mistake. You help them learn so they avoid repeating it. If, the same individual continues to make the same mistake after many supportive efforts to clarify steps, processes, expectations etc – then you have a different problem.

Psychological safety is not about tolerating the same mistake to be repeatedly made.

But it is about giving people the space to safely learn.

When talking about this I often think about my typing prowess and how I can churn out 100 words per minute with 98% accuracy when alone, but as soon as someone stands over my shoulder my fingers turn into footballs. Ever had that happen? The irony is we tend to make more mistakes when people are watching our every move, don’t we?

In the workplace, this hypervigilance is psychologically unsafe, so unless you’re training a neurosurgeon who’s practising on a real person there’s no need for it.

Instead, focus on creating a safe place to learn. Don’t shame or humiliate people if they make an error – approach it as a learning opportunity and help them grow.

Train Your Teams in Psychological Safety

To ensure we have psychologically safe environments we need to make people aware of what psychological safety is, and why it is so important. We need teams to understand:

  • What are the benefits of having a psychologically safe team and workplace?
  • What is the link between psychological safety and psychological harm prevention?
  • What are each of the elements and how can we lift these in our workplace?
  • How do I know if my organisation and/or team is psychologically safe?

My training programs explore the answers to these questions.  We also workshop the specific elements of psychological safety to help teams co-design activities that will lift the areas they feel need lifting in their own organisation and in their own context.

Training Options for Your Workplace

1) Demystifying Workplace Psychological Health & Safety1.5hr F2F or Virtual Workshop

2) Intro to Psychological Safety – 3.5hr F2F or Virtual Workshop

3) Advanced Psychological Safety – 3.5hr F2F or Virtual Workshop (Intro to Psych Safety is a pre-requisite for this workshop)

Reach out for a chat to discuss any of these options.

Tan x

¹ VUCA = Volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous

Tanya Heaney-Voogt

Director & Principal Consultant
MBA, ICFACC, MAHRI, Dip Mgt, Dip Coaching, Prosci® Certified Change Practitioner

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