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Psychological Safety and Trust in the Workplace
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Talent Acquisition

The Magic Duo for Success: Psychological Safety and Trust in the Workplace

One Minute Takeaway

  • Trust in the workplace is about individual personal connections. Psychological safety is a group-level attribute where everyone can express their thoughts without fear of criticism.
  • A culture of psychological safety promotes DE&I, allowing everyone to bring their unique qualities to the table.
  • Common barriers to achieving psychological safety include hierarchical culture, fear of consequences, and a toxic work environment.

What’s the magic recipe for a thriving workplace? We can assure you that it’s not just about ping pong tables, beanbag chairs, and Friday Happy Hours. Rather, it’s something that goes much deeper. Welcome to psychological safety and trust, the twin pillars of a mentally healthy, productive, and innovative work environment.

As a leader, your job involves more than just driving business outcomes. It’s about creating a welcoming environment where everyone feels safe enough to bring their authentic selves to work, express their ideas freely, and trust that their voice matters. Encouraging and supporting this type of vibrant culture results in a thriving company.

Trust and Psychological Safety: What’s the Big Difference?

So, what’s the distinction between trust and psychological safety? Both share some features, but they have their own unique qualities. Trust is all about one-on-one connections, like making yourself vulnerable to a colleague, knowing they’ve got your back. It’s a conscious choice to share something sensitive, such as a secret, with someone else. Trust is the glue between two people that strengthens over time, as long as both parties maintain confidentiality and respect.

Building trust in the workplace is all about finding reliable people and understanding what fuels that trust. The old adage, “actions speak louder than words” is the key here. Behaviors such as consistency, empathy, maintaining confidentiality, and fostering genuine relationships all help to build trust. On the flip side, actions like backstabbing, dishonesty, and taking credit for others’ work can make quick work of corroding that trust.

Psychological safety, on the other hand, is the buzz that fills the room when everyone feels at ease to express their thoughts without the fear of criticism. It’s a form of trust at scale on a larger playing field that ensures employees feel secure enough to share their ideas, concerns, or even mistakes in a group setting without fear or repercussion. The absence of psychological safety can turn a healthy workspace into a breeding ground of toxic behaviors like microaggressions, gossip, or bullying.

Both trust and psychological safety can be nurtured through open communication and relationship-building. But striking the right balance between openness, healthy conflict, and confidentiality can be tricky. While it’s essential to share information, certain information must remain under wraps. Establishing ground rules through team agreements can help navigate this terrain. You can learn more in our on-demand webinar, “Understanding Psychological Safety at Work.”

The Importance of Psychological Safety

Building a culture of psychological safety is a critical component for promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I). It lets everyone bring their unique qualities to the table, provide useful feedback, and foster an atmosphere of learning and innovation. Managers play a key role here, addressing toxic behaviors and promoting trust. However, they need the right training to handle the more subtle, insidious behaviors, like spreading rumors. And it’s important that they understand the distinctions between behaviors that can be tweaked with coaching and character flaws that require more in-depth resolutions.

Creating a workplace that is psychologically safe offers wide-ranging benefits, including improved morale, lower turnover, and better communication, teamwork, and retention. Regular check-ins and feedback sessions with employees can help quickly highlight concerns or issues related to trust that might arise.

Leaders play a significant part in helping to ensure they have a mentally healthy workplace. When they demonstrate transparency, honesty, and vulnerability, they set the tone for others. Encouraging open dialogue, active listening, and constructive feedback, they foster a culture where mistakes can be seen as opportunities for growth.

Belonging and inclusion are at the heart of building trust and psychological safety. Recognizing diverse perspectives and promoting empathy and understanding makes everyone feel accepted and respected. It’s important to remember that this is an ongoing process, not a one-off achievement, that requires constant nurturing through resources, training, and support.

Common barriers to achieving psychological safety at work

While striving to achieve psychological safety in the workplace is necessary, it’s not always a straightforward process. Organizations can face several common barriers:

  1. Hierarchical Culture: In traditional, hierarchical cultures, employees might feel discouraged from speaking up due to power dynamics or fear of retribution. They might worry about negative consequences, like harming their career progression or damaging relationships with their bosses.
  2. Lack of Trust: Trust is the bedrock of psychological safety. Without it, employees may feel unsure about sharing their ideas or concerns. A lack of trust can stem from various factors, like inconsistent communication, perceived favoritism, or a history of ignored feedback.
  3. Poor Communication: Ineffective or inadequate communication can lead to misunderstandings and a lack of clarity. If team members feel they’re not receiving transparent or consistent messages from leadership, they may not feel safe expressing their thoughts or concerns.
  4. Fear of Consequences: If employees fear that sharing ideas, asking questions, or admitting mistakes will lead to ridicule, punishment, or negative judgments, they’re unlikely to feel psychologically safe. This fear can be reinforced by previous negative experiences in the current or past workplaces.
  5. Inadequate Leadership Support: Leaders play a crucial role in fostering psychological safety. If they don’t fully understand its importance, or don’t model the right behaviors (such as empathy, openness, and active listening), they may inadvertently create a barrier.
  6. Toxic Work Environment: An environment characterized by negativity, high stress, bullying, or lack of respect can significantly undermine psychological safety. If employees deal with such issues, they’re unlikely to feel safe or comfortable expressing themselves.
  7. Lack of Inclusion and Diversity: A non-inclusive work environment can make certain individuals or groups feel alienated or marginalized, thereby inhibiting psychological safety. This can occur if there’s a lack of representation, unconscious bias, or insufficient respect for diverse perspectives and experiences.

Overcoming these barriers involves concerted effort at all levels, particularly from leadership, to create a safe environment where all employees feel valued, heard, and comfortable in sharing their thoughts, ideas, and concerns.

How to Build a Safe Company Culture

Ready to get started? Here are three simple steps to kickstart a culture of psychological safety:

  1. Set the Stage: As a leader, setting the stage involves creating an atmosphere of openness and vulnerability. This is where you walk the walk and talk the talk. Encourage your team to be authentic by being authentic yourself. Share the thought process and rationale behind your decisions and be open about the challenges and uncertainties you face. Also, don’t shy away from showing your vulnerability, and talk about the importance of maintaining good mental health. Admitting your mistakes and learning from them demonstrates to your team that it’s okay to stumble every once in a while, and what really matters is how we learn and grow from missteps. Establish a shared identity and purpose, something that unites all members and gives them a sense of belonging and common direction.
  2. Invite Participation: Encouraging participation is all about valuing diverse perspectives. Make your team meetings a safe space for everyone to share their thoughts and ideas, no matter how unconventional they may be. This could be as simple as asking open-ended questions to invite a range of responses. Actively seek out the opinions of quieter team members (but don’t put them on the spot) and ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to speak and contribute. Make it clear that all ideas are welcome and that differing opinions are not just tolerated but appreciated as long as they’re presented respectfully.
  3. Respond Productively: Your responses to your team’s contributions can either foster or stifle psychological safety. Practice active listening and make sure to acknowledge all ideas, questions, and concerns shared by your team members. Even if an idea isn’t feasible, provide constructive feedback that helps the person understand why it won’t work in this particular situation, but also encourages them to continue contributing in the future. When team members voice concerns or share mistakes, respond with empathy and use these situations as learning opportunities for everyone involved. Celebrate successes, but also value the lessons learned from failure.

Psychological Safety and Remote Workers

Achieving psychological safety is certainly possible within a remote or hybrid work environment, even though it may present some challenges. The physical distance and lack of face-to-face interactions in remote work can make it more difficult to establish trust and openness, but with intentional effort, these obstacles can be overcome. Here’s how:

  1. Encourage Open and Regular Communication: When employees are working remotely, it’s vital to have regular check-ins and updates to keep everyone in the loop. Use multiple communication channels, including email, chat, and video conferencing, to ensure information is relayed effectively. Make communication frequent, transparent, and two-way. Encourage remote team members to voice their concerns, ask questions, and provide feedback.
  2. Leverage Technology: When using video conferencing, encourage team members to turn their cameras on to promote more personal and engaging interaction. Use collaboration tools like online whiteboards that allow for real-time co-working and brainstorming.
  3. Build Virtual Relationships: Create opportunities for team members to connect on a personal level, even when they’re not in the same physical space. This can include virtual coffee breaks, online team-building activities, or even just a few minutes of casual conversation at the start of a meeting.
  4. Promote Inclusivity: Make sure every voice is heard during virtual meetings. This might involve specifically inviting more introverted team members to share their thoughts or using features like “raise hand” in video conferencing software to ensure everyone has a chance to speak.
  5. Set Clear Expectations: Especially with remote work, it’s essential that everyone knows what’s expected of them. This includes clarity on work hours, tasks, deadlines, and performance metrics.
  6. Provide Support: Show empathy and understanding towards the unique challenges of remote work, such as balancing work and home life, dealing with technical issues, or feeling isolated. Offer resources to help team members navigate these challenges and assure them that it’s always okay (and encouraged) to reach out for help.
  7. Recognize and Reward: Positive reinforcement goes a long way in fostering psychological safety. Regularly acknowledge the hard work and achievements of your team members and make sure your appreciation is communicated clearly, whether in team meetings, one-on-one check-ins, or group chats.

Remember, fostering psychological safety isn’t a one-time activity, but rather, an ongoing process that requires constant attention and nurturing. It involves the active participation of everyone on the team, and especially requires a commitment from leaders to model these behaviors and values consistently.

In a nutshell, trust and psychological safety are the power-duo for a thriving work environment. Trust focuses on individual relationships, while psychological safety embraces the team dynamics. It’s about intentional effort, effective communication, and fostering an inclusive and supportive culture. By championing these elements, organizations can create a place where everyone feels empowered, collaborates effectively, and drives innovation and success.

How Paycor Helps

Paycor can help you keep a finger on the pulse of your environment with frequent anonymous employee surveys to ensure everyone feels safe. Our Learning Management software gives you the tools you need to offer employees powerful, personalized training on demand. And it’s accessible on-the-go on mobile or desktop.

For more free resources and tools that promote greater diversity awareness in the workplace, visit Perspectives+. It’s Paycor’s online knowledge library designed to help our partner network drive change, empower colleagues, and foster new leaders.