In many countries around the world, workplaces have begun opening up and people have started going into offices again—what companies call “re-entry”.
While it might seem that things can return to what they were like pre-pandemic, quite a number of people are experiencing higher stress in the form of return-to-office anxiety.
For example, feeling like you cannot naturally start conversations with your colleagues, or even concerns about the safety of taking public transport again.
How then can companies support their people upon re-entry and take care of their mental wellness?
One of the best ways is to create psychological safety and trust at work, such that they feel comfortable expressing their feelings or what they might need to transition back smoothly.
What is a psychologically safe environment?
According to Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmonson, psychological safety is the “belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”
Within a team, this means a shared belief that your fellow team members will not reject, embarrass, or punish you for speaking up.
Now, one might think this kind of environment should exist as a default. However, sometimes even in the most logical of situations, people keep quiet.
Take nurses speaking up when they notice processes that may impact patient health for example. If they feel threatened or know they will face punishment, they are more likely not to say anything.
This, of course, can lead to disastrous consequences.
With hybrid and remote work becoming the default, such situations are becoming even more common.
If one is feeling stressed from adjusting back to the workplace, or notices concerns in their co-worker about re-entry blues, being able to speak up would be vital. How then, can workplaces in Singapore (and Asia) create psychologically safe environments?
Why does it matter?
In the context of a business, psychological safety may feel hard to quantify. In a later article, we’ll also discuss how to measure psychological safety and ensure that you’re on track.
However, consider that when people do not feel safe to speak up, problems might not come to the surface, innovation is stunted, and collaboration is weakened.
People might fear coming to work and may end up doing only what they have been asked, or allowed to do. This, in turn, may affect their career progression.
But in the long run, it is the company that takes the hit: not being able to leverage the strengths of all their people, not being equipped to handle failure, and not innovating to remain agile in uncertain times.
How to create psychological safety at work
In an interesting study conducted by Google’s People Operations team, they found that there are five keys to a successful team.
Far and away, psychological safety came up on top. In fact, according to the study, it was the underpinning of the other four keys (dependability, structure & integrity, meaning, and impact).
Without psychological safety, they found that team members are less likely to admit mistakes, partner, and take on new roles.
Here are six tips for creating psychological safety in the workplace.
1. Be empathetic
Recognise that everyone may experience a common event in different ways.
For example, some relish the thought of seeing colleagues face to face, while some feel worried that their colleagues may not like them or they may have awkward conversations. Others may be unhappy that they are asked to come back three times a week.
Instead of assuming you know why, seek to understand their perspective.
2. Check your response
When people come to you to offer suggestions and feedback, how do you respond?
If your instinct is to accuse or blame, it might be likely that they feel nervous about raising such matters with you.
If, however, you respond with appreciation and say “Thank you for bringing up this important matter. It is going to save us so much time”, people might feel more comfortable about sharing in the future.
3. Frame the work as a learning problem—not an execution problem
Framing the work as a learning problem acknowledges that sometimes problems exist because there are certain skills, competencies, or knowledge that can be learnt in order to solve the issue.
As an execution problem, however, it falls back down to the person who didn’t manage to solve it or create it—it just feels more personal.
4. Acknowledge your own fallibility
As a leader, this falls into the realm of ownership. Being willing to admit when you may have made a mistake, or perhaps were not able to see things from another perspective, sends a message that you are only human.
Making mistakes is part and parcel of learning and growth—and from that, you learn lessons and get better at what you do.
5. Model curiosity and ask lots of questions
Asking questions means that you may not always know everything.
Sometimes, people fail to ask really important questions because they think they are not worth asking.
However, if you model that no question is too small or insignificant to ask, they are likely to follow suit.
6. Use structures during meetings to facilitate everyone speaking up
Instead of saying “does anyone have anything to say?” go around in a circle and have everyone share something that they can add value to, an idea they have, or a piece of feedback.
This way it becomes part of the norm and feels less daunting.
Most of all, be patient
Creating a psychologically safe environment is a process that takes time.
However, it is not impossible, especially if you understand what is necessary to support your people to speak up.
Once you are able to do this, you can start thinking about possibilities such as:
How can we continue to ensure our people show up as their best selves?
How can we encourage them to bring in new ideas, be bold in innovation and think from various perspectives?
How can we ensure that they continue to take pride in the work they are doing?
At the end of the day, if your team wins, the organisation wins.