How To Create Emotional Safety At Work

If an employee within your organization were to make a mistake, would they feel comfortable admitting it? Would they share an objection to a current policy or a revolutionary new idea? If you answered “no” or “I don’t know” to either of these questions, a lack of psychological safety may be sabotaging your company culture.

Psychological safety is an individual’s perception of how emotionally safe it is to express themselves without being punished or perceived negatively. In a team setting, someone who feels psychologically unsafe might refrain from asking a question for fear of being seen as ignorant or incompetent. Instead of voicing a new or unique idea, they will keep quiet. The expectation of chastisement will also prevent them from admitting mistakes and communicating other problems.

As you can imagine, teams that lack emotional safety are much less successful than those that foster open communication, empathy, and trust. I know this from my own experience and from the anecdotal accounts of the executives, CEOs, and other company leaders I’ve worked with. But you don’t have to take my word for it.

Google—one of the most successful companies globally—spent years researching what makes a successful team. They looked at many factors, including professional experience, introversion versus extroversion, and intelligence. None of these factors reliably predicted a team’s productivity, profitability, or commitment to the company. Psychological safety, on the other hand, did.[i]

As an executive or other leader, you are in a position to set the cultural tone within your organization. At the same time, you may not have good visibility into all of the interactions within your organization’s team environments. Therefore, the first step to improving psychological safety within your company will be to find out how emotionally safe your staff currently feels.

How to assess the psychological safety element of company culture

Provided you are observant and frequently interact with staff members, you can start by simply paying attention. How do managers and team leaders within your company brainstorm and resolve conflict? Do they get upset anytime something goes wrong, or do they react calmly? Think about your meetings. Do a wide variety of people talk during meetings, or is the conversation dominated by a select few? Do leaders seem open to new ideas, or do they immediately shoot them down?

If you’re still unsure how to evaluate the impact of emotional safety on your company culture, consider a formal process. Create survey questions inspired by the ones above or borrow from the questions list Google researchers used below. To what degree do your team members agree or disagree with the following statements?

  1. If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.
  2. Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
  3. People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.
  4. It is safe to take a risk on this team.
  5. It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
  6. No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
  7. Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.

Send your survey to people at all levels of your organization to get a complete picture. In all likelihood, your leadership team’s perceptions may not reflect the experiences of their staff. To encourage honesty, consider making the survey confidential. If you’re still worried that people won’t give candid answers, consider bringing in an outside party to facilitate.

Next, conduct follow-up interviews. Find out why your staff members feel the way they do. Ask how the leadership team can make it easier for them to take risks, voice their opinions, and ask for help when they need it. Don’t forget to also ask about what is going well so you can increase it.

How to create emotional safety at work

The evaluation process should give you some ideas on how to build psychological safety by discouraging and encouraging certain behaviors. That said, the following tips can help you hit the ground running.

Embrace respectful disagreements

There is a big difference between not liking someone and not liking someone’s idea. If someone makes a suggestion or points out a potential problem, welcome it! The whole point of working in teams is to leverage the collective brainpower of the group. When conflict arises, recognize the value of differing opinions, even those that don’t make it past the drawing board. Finding tactful ways of encouraging input while maintaining your authority is key to learning how to create psychological safety.

Lead by example

Create psychological safety in your own interactions by inviting those around you to contribute ideas and expressing appreciation for them. It doesn’t matter if their ideas are always good (although you should try to be open-minded). What matters is that the people around you begin to learn that they are welcome to voice their opinions—even when they go against conventional ways of thinking.

Make it a company-wide initiative

You may be tempted to send this article to your human resources director and let them handle it. After all, culture is an HR issue. Right?

Wrong. Every person within an organization, from the CEO to the janitorial staff, helps to shape culture. Company culture affects every person in every department. So, they must all play a role in conscientiously shaping it.

Your HR team should be involved, of course. However, you must place some of the responsibility for creating emotional safety on your leadership team, who must then pass that responsibility down to others, and so on. You can do this by regularly asking what they and their staff are doing to strengthen emotional safety.

Be clear about your expectations

Ensure your leadership team understands the meaning and value of psychological safety so they can communicate it to others. Have them set ground rules for meetings that encourage respectful discourse and open-mindedness. Consider also having managers post a visual reminder for review before each meeting.

Encourage staff to get to know one another

Managers can take time at the start of meetings to ask those present how they’re doing. They should listen closely and ask follow-up questions that go beyond the superficial. They might ask about holiday plans, their recent vacation, or other things that have been going on in their lives. These questions can often help uncover details that help everyone see each other as people, not just employees. This promotes empathy and more respectful discourse.

If you’re still wondering how to promote psychological safety, you’re not alone. Most business management programs don’t teach a person how to create emotional safety at work. For detailed guidance on how to improve trust in the workplace and reinvigorate company culture, consider working with an experienced psychologist such as myself. Visit my executive coaching page for more information on my executive services or contact Dr. Lee for a free, 20-minute consultation.


[i] Google re:Work Project Aristotle, 2012