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Psychological safety has four stages. How can your team level up?

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With the growing emphasis on workplace wellbeing, the term “psychological safety” has become popular. In fact, it has become so ubiquitous that its precise meaning is often lost. Organisations may call for psychological safety without really understanding how to advance this value. 

According to Intellect’s behavioural health coach Nistha Singh, psychological safety is a shared belief among colleagues that they can take interpersonal risks at work. These include voicing their views, giving constructive criticism, or asking for help, which can leave them feeling exposed and vulnerable.

“A work environment which is psychologically safe is one where employees feel comfortable and confident in expressing their opinions,” elaborated Singh, who shared her thoughts in a webinar on psychological safety, trust, and empowerment. 

But psychological safety isn’t just another business buzzword. It’s a strategic priority also because it creates competitive advantages. A two-year study by Google found that psychological safety was one of the common attributes of effective teams. 

Employees at high trust workplaces report 74% less stress and 40% less burnout, which manifests in part in 13% fewer sick days. They also have 106% more energy, demonstrate 50% more productivity, and show 76% more engagement

Four stages of psychological safety 

While psychological safety is usually discussed as a monolithic value, it is actually composed of four distinct stages that can be visualised as a pyramid. Inclusion safety is the foundation on which learner safety, contributor safety, and challenger safety are built on. 

That being said, upward and downward movements are seldom linear. 

“Psychological safety isn’t a binary. It’s a sliding scale that changes throughout the team’s or company’s journey. People will move forward and backward, or skip stages in different contexts, times of day, and even teams,” she said. 

Inclusion safety enables team members to feel safe and accepted for who they are.
They don’t need to separate their work and non-work personas, they can connect with one another freely. As a result, employees feel “wanted” and “appreciated.” 

Learner safety is a notch higher as it takes more vulnerability to admit that you don’t know it all.
With learner safety, colleagues feel safe to ask questions, experiment, and exchange constructive criticism. 

Contributor safety follows learner safety. When employees can exercise their unique abilities comfortably, they naturally add value to the team. According to Singh, this is more challenging as volunteering one’s ideas involves psychosocial vulnerability. 

Challenger safety is present when employees feel comfortable disagreeing, challenging, or even questioning the status quo. “This can be very intimidating, which is why it’s the last stage,” said Singh. 

As these four stages are dynamic, psychological safety can be seen as a process rather than an outcome. Rather than treating it as a one-off initiative or effort, organisations will do well to maintain it across teams

How to foster psychological safety 

According to Singh, central to psychological safety is empathy. She defined empathy as “one’s capacity to comprehend, recognise, and relate to the thoughts and feelings of another person.” 

Because empathy builds rapport, provides support, and even enhances the mood of the other person, it improves psychological safety. Fortunately, it is a skill we can actively develop in our day-to-day interactions. But where do we begin?

A 3-step approach to empathic response

The word itself abbreviates the ingredients of empathic communication. Listeners can maintain steady eye contact, use their facial muscles to offer a warm expression, and maintain an open posture. They can also affect an emotional communication style by sharing their feelings or reflecting the other person’s. Finally, strike a neutral tone, hear with acceptance, and calibrate your response to encourage the other party to continue sharing.

An empathic response has three parts. Say, a colleague tells you that they are struggling to learn a new technology essential to their work. The first step is to show genuine interest. 

“We want to foster the belief that we are on the same team as them. Partner with them to create a space that allows them to share freely,” said Singh, adding that this can be accomplished by listening closely, maintaining eye contact, and asking follow up questions that prod them for more details of their problem.

Next, reflect your colleague’s emotion. If applicable, you could agree that the technology has been difficult to learn and share your own roadblocks. You could say, “You’re not alone as I also encountered difficulty at first. It must be frustrating for you.”

Finally, offer support while refraining from giving generic advice. For instance, rather than suggesting that they must be persistent with their learning, you could share specific resources that will help them overcome the problem as you did. 

The ingredients of empathy and this three-step approach will go a long way toward promoting psychological safety in the workplace.

How Intellect can help 

Empathic communication builds psychological safety from the bottom-up, but an organisation may also create a culture of trust from the top-down. Intellect can help, as the platform did for over 3 million users in leading employers like Shell, the National University of Singapore (NUS), and Singtel. 

When Shopback, for example, rolled Intellect out to over 700 employees, more than a third of them started using it actively within one year. Tech in Asia, on the other hand, saw a 75% utilisation rate within just 8 months after making Intellect’s coaching and self-guided resources accessible to their employees. 

This wellspring of activity promoted open conversations about mental wellbeing and, by extension, psychological safety, with CEO Willis Wee sharing his experience with executive coaching with his employees. Importantly, every individual’s usage of Intellect is completely anonymised, thanks to the platform’s zero-knowledge encryption technology

If your organisation wants to likewise innovate how you sustain psychological safety in your culture, reach out to us for a demo

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