Employee Engagement: How Safe do you feel at Work?

“People have asked us to explain a little bit more about the three pillars of Employee Engagement and why they are so important, i.e.: Psychological Safety, Meaningfulness and Psychological Availability. This blog represents the first of three explaining why we strongly support the notion that it’s all about creating a safe, meaningful and fairly demanding workplace.”

Psychological Safety

The founding father of Engagement, Prof. dr. W. Kahn (Kahn 1990, p. 708) firmly states that psychological safety “is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” This translates to; building psychological safety is a team effort. A team is made up of individuals. Such a realization proves that individuals are important as they are the building blocks in a team and subsequently, the company. Personal engagement has high connectivity to psychological safety. What follows is that, initially, attention must and should be directed at individuals to work on their personal engagements.

In a bid to better understand leadership, Google conducted a 2-year research with was released and published in 2015. Google’s investigation into what makes a great team yield 5 key dynamics that build great successful teams. The dynamics comprise of psychological safety, dependability, structure and clarity, as well as meaning and impact. Although all the key dynamic elements proved to be necessary for effective leadership and creating a successful team. Psychological safety proved to be the most vital.

Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson gives the following definition; “psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.” This definition, which closely resembles that given by Kahn in 1990 advocates for the freedom to be, the freedom for self-expression. Since the Google-Edmondson study indicates that teams that make more mistakes have the highest success rates, it goes to stress the importance of being free to express thoughts and opinions—which directly means psychologically safe environment. As far as physical health and safety go, it is mostly the responsibility of the employer, and your role as an employee is to comply and follow through. For a psychologically safe environment, employers can spread the word, create and spread goodwill. However, whether or not employees choose to take the given opportunity lies in them.

Since psychological safety means the freedom to express what’s on one’s mind without fear of suffering any repercussions, it is a personal and individual task not to judge or reprimand colleagues during the conversation. The notion of psychological safety is that the environment promotes comfort. When every employee is comfortable, their levels of creativity increase. The workplace becomes a place of innovation, solace and well…comfort.


According to (Kahn, 1990. P. 708), psychological safety can be defined by realizing that it entails “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career.” One thing that cripples productivity more than all other elements combined is the fear of ruining self-image. As humans, we know that everything else can disappear at any moment. Thus, we hold dear to that which we can preserve, control, build and determine which self-image is. Kahn explains that psychological safety can be shown through fully committing oneself without fear of being reprimanded or causing damage to one’s self-image.

As far as Occupational Health and Safety Acts apply, they have always almost been concerned about physical health and safety. Only in recent years have companies and different branches of psychology started advocating for psychological safety. Where employees feel safe, they are happy and free to be productive. Where there is productivity, the company prospers.

Millennials understand the power of positivity and mental freedom. However, there are times where their rights and choices adversely affect those around them. In the workplace, no matter how hard an employee natures freedom of speech and freedom to be, there will always be setbacks. Such setbacks are in the form of over-outspoken individuals who don’t process the impact of their words before speaking. For there to be 100% psychological safety, it is up to everyone in the workplace to be considerate of other people’s feelings and thoughts. The feedback that might be appropriate to a colleague on the same level might be too hard for a more junior colleague. Since everyone is free to voice out their thoughts, employers also need constant reminders that options, comments and views must be delivered constructively. That way, the spirit of innovativeness will continue through a protected psychologically safe workplace.

Conclusion

Teams should be stimulated to frequently engage in open dialogues, show creativity and bring their entrepreneurial drive to work. This provides a ‘happy place,’ whereby teams build relationships beyond a professional level. Kahn’s take on psychological safety is that employees feel safe where they can trust wholly without suffering for their personal engagement. In a nutshell, where employees feel safer, the level of organizational performance is higher.

Written by: Aleksander Tchernov