We tend to think of disengagement as an individual problem solvable by coaching, having the right managers, or defining engagement goals — the list goes on.
However, evidence is mounting that to solve disengagement, you don’t need to fix the individual but the culture. According to research, companies with high disengagement are 40x less likely to be considered a great place to work.
Take note: lack of participation is not an individual problem. If people aren’t speaking up, blame your company culture.
Even those who are naturally more inclined to raise ideas or ask questions may not do so if they fear being ignored or punished, research shows.
Disengagement is associated with a lack of trust, lack of creativity, poor interpersonal relationships, and lack of belonging — among many other harmful effects.
That’s where psychological safety comes in.
The authors of the study, Hemant Kakkar and Subra Tangirala, wrote,
“Encouraging and rewarding speaking up can help more people do so, even if their personality makes them more risk-averse.”
Creating a safe space for employees takes time and is not easy. Discover real-life practices and insights from thriving organizations.
What Psychological Safety Is (And Is Not)
Psychological safety is the foundation of high-performing teams and organizations. It’s about creating a space where people feel safe to speak up, be themselves, and challenge the status quo.
According to Amy Edmondson, “Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” Team members are not afraid of negative consequences like being ignored, laughed at, or punished.
Silence in the workplace -filtering what we think or say- is pervasive. Only 3 in 10 employees strongly agree that their opinions count at work, according to Gallup.
Working in a psychologically safe environment does not mean that people will always agree with each other or that they will become friends. It’s about creating a space of mutual respect and trust where people can be candid and caring at the same time.
Feeling safe isn’t an invitation to stay in the comfort zone. On the contrary, it creates a fertile ground for experimenting and taking risks. That’s why Google considers it the secret sauce of high-performing teams.
A psychologically safe environment encourages people to address conflict and dissent in the open rather than silencing issues. Psychological Safety is one of the key 10 building blocks of The Culture Design Canvas.
Here are seven ways to develop Psychological Safety in your company, including best practices from successful organizations.
How to Promote Psychological Safety in the Workplace
1. Admit you’re not perfect; ask for feedback
Amy Edmondson recommends starting with the leader. Senior executives must set the stage and model behavior.
The best antidote to fear is vulnerability. Recognizing your flaws and that you’re not perfect will invite people to open up, creating candid conversations that help the team grow.
“Your vulnerabilities are opportunities for your team to learn.”
– Larkin Ryder
Leaders should invite feedback. That’s what Larkin Ryder suggests in Slack’s blog; the interim chief security officer recommends to ask for feedback, accept it gratefully, and offer feedback about yourself.
Larkin shares an anecdote in which she recently admitted to her team that she’d been too focused on operational minutia, letting strategic thinking slip.
Most companies focus on providing their employees with feedback, but we know that people resist being told what to do– unsolicited feedback puts people down. Patagonia HR chief Dean Carter emphasizes asking people for feedback rather than giving it to them.
As Carter explains, “We’ve learned that when you give someone unsolicited feedback, basically nothing happens. But if you request feedback, the person you request it from is more likely to request feedback themselves. They’re likely to request feedback from three other people.”
To create a culture of regular feedback, Patagonia encourages people to ask for feedback, not to give it.
2. Build strong personal relationships
Safety is the foundation on which workplace cultures are built. In The Culture Code, Daniel Code explains how successful teams have three things in common:
– They’re connected
– They feel safe
– They share a future
Humans use a series of subtle gestures called belonging cues. Some examples include eye contact, body language, and vocal pitch. When repeated, those belonging cues create Psychological Safety — we shift from fear to connection.
At Southwest Airlines, humor functions as a belonging cue; it’s so crucial that you can’t get a job at the airline if you lack a sense of humor.
This belonging cue builds strong personal relationships that allow Southwest’s employees to bring their full selves to work. The airline is famous for its hilarious safety announcements; all employees have the freedom to create their own.
Gregg Popovich compiled a record of 1268 wins and 606 losses in his NBA coaching career. “Hug ’em and hold ‘em,” the head coach of the San Antonio Spurs shares the secret to his success. For him, everything is about building strong personal relationships.
Much of the connection happens around the table. The Spurs eat together approximately as often as they play together. Food and wine aren’t just food and wine; they’re bridges to intentional bonding.
Our brain craves social approval from our bosses and colleagues. Belonging cues switch the focus; they encourage us to create deeper social bonds with our team members.
3. Make everyone an insider
Trust is a two-way street, but someone has to make the first move. If you want to promote Psychological Safety, start by treating your employees as insiders.
That’s precisely what Atlassian does. The Australian tech company provides people unlimited access to information. What’s usually private in most companies is public at Atlassian.
Employees were informed that the company was going public before it was announced to the press. They also knew about Atlassian selling HipChat to Slack before the deal was even announced.
Airbnb also believes in breaking down walls between what’s private and what’s public. After its leadership team meets every week, anyone in the company can read the notes from the meeting, which are shared within 24 hours.
“We distribute that very broadly, and people really appreciate knowing what we’re talking about and ask questions, share thoughts and ideas,” Airbnb’s Global Head of Employee Experience, Mark Levy, explains. “That stems from our communication philosophy that we want to have an honest, open, and two-way dialogue between everyone in the company.”
When everyone’s an insider, it’s easier for team members to speak up or share their ideas. There’s no fear because they don’t work in an “us versus them” environment.
4. Design participation to include everyone
Psychological Safety isn’t just about understanding what the overall group is thinking, but to also listen to individual, quiet voices.
Amy Edmondson once told me to ask, “What might at least one person be thinking and reluctant to say aloud?”
Atlassian practices a simple yet effective method that I always encourage my clients to adopt: Conversational Turn-Taking. Everyone is given their turn to speak and the rest must listen. Leaders and louder people always speak last to ensure that they don’t influence or intimidate quiet folks.
Before their monthly town hall meetings, both Slack and Spotify invite their employees to submit questions. Senior executives must address those that received the most votes, regardless of how sensitive the issues might be.
Be mindful about participation; don’t take it for granted.
At Patagonia’s town hall, Dan Carter likes to ask people, “How many of you have gotten feedback in the last week?” The executive continually tracks this number to ensure participation grows. Currently, 70 percent of the room will raise their hands.
Conversations are your team’s currency — the value of work depends on the value of people’s dialogue. Design participation to ensure that everyone feels included and speaks up.
5. Remove barriers and limiting mindsets
Getting planes to turn around quickly and safely is no small deal. At Southwest, that process seems more relaxed than in other airlines. Southwest has done a great job of removing hierarchical and departmental barriers — everyone feels their voices are valued and welcome.
This intense focus on building stronger relationships allows for better coordination across teams and functions. Employees are taught to not only appreciate everyone’s contributions, but also to consider the impact of their own actions on other people.
Southwest practices Psychological Safety by promoting learning rather than blame when things go wrong.
At Pixar, everyone can talk to anyone.
Ed Catmull realized that hierarchy is the enemy of creativity. He purposefully worked on getting rid of barriers. For example, in most movie studios, art is seen as superior to technology. They both matter equally at Pixar; art and technology must work together.
Encourage people to focus on the bigger picture, not just on their role. Spotify invites employees to fix the process, not just the product. This practice turns improvement into everyone’s responsibility. There’s no room for “this is not part of my job description.”
6. Make it okay to let it all out
How do you get your team to talk about, “What’s everybody thinking and no-one is saying”? Simple: make it okay for people to spill it all out.
Slack has a dedicated internal channel called #beef-tweets. As the name suggests, its purpose is for employees to air their “beefs” with the company’s own product.
As Amir Shevat, Slack’s former director of developer relations, told Fast Company, “Sometimes comments can get very prickly, but the important thing is that they’re aired and heard.”
Emojis come to the rescue for managers to show that they’ve read the feedback. Once issues are resolved, someone responds with a checkmark.
Airbnb has a ritual to promote Psychological Safety called “Elephants, dead fish, and vomit.” Created by Joe Gebbia, one of the co-founders, this company-wide practice encourages human, candid conversations.
Elephants are the big things inside most organizations that no one dares to bring up. Dead fishes are the things which happened a few years ago and some can’t get over. Vomit is when someone needs to get something off their chest and expects managers to just sit and listen.
Google Ventures hosts anxiety parties to practice vulnerability and address worries and emotions. Employees are asked to write down their biggest anxieties. Everyone’s concerns are then ranked and shared with each other. Colleagues provide feedback and perspective on how to overcome anxiety and recover momentum.
Letting it all out doesn’t just make people feel safe; it also allows everyone to address the elephant (or Stinky Fish) in the room and move forward. Psychological Safety encourages people to address silent problems and discuss solutions instead of suffering silently on their own.
7. Promote candor and transparency
A psychologically safe culture isn’t one that’s free of frictions; it’s about providing the right space to have the conversations that most teams avoid.
Contrary to popular belief, Pixar’s success is not the result of a magic touch but instead of hard work and candid conversations. In Creativity, Inc, Ed Catmull shares how most Pixar movies were complete disasters at the start.
Pixar uses Braintrusts to take care of “Ugly Babies.” This peer-to-peer review has helped turn mediocre movie ideas into huge box office successes. The Braintrust makes people grow accustomed to the ‘embarrassment’ of showing their work in progress.
The role of colleagues is not to judge the work, but to help the movie grow. Pixar practices radical candor with empathy–feedback is not meant to harm others, but to nurture the film. However, participants don’t pull punches to be polite either.
As Catmull wrote, “It is not the manager’s job to prevent risks. It is the manager’s job to make it safe to take them.”
Promoting candor and transparency is your key responsibility as a leader. You must create an environment that encourages people to support each other and to trust each other, even when they screw up.
Disengagement and a lack of participation are not just individual issues, but mostly driven by your company’s culture. How safe is your workplace?
Building a psychologically safe space takes time and consistency. Modeling behavior is the best way to encourage people to participate. Start by asking for feedback and, when people talk, just sit down and listen.