Belfast Telegraph

Psychological Safety - Underpinning Innovation cover

Claire Thomson
Claire Thomson
insight featured image
The past 18-months have seen business leaders dealing with challenges well beyond their usual remit.

Handling remote teams, new working practices, employee anxiety and ever-evolving regulations have forced business leaders to consider and reassess their organisation’s culture and priorities, and how to achieve the best from, and for, their staff while emerging from a global pandemic.

Developing psychological safety may not be on the top of that to-do list; however, according to research for Grant Thornton’s International Business Report, 43% of business leaders surveyed responded to these challenges by encouraging an environment where all colleagues could speak up with ideas, issues, and questions.

The term ‘psychological safety’ has, until recently, largely existed in the realms of business theory, more likely to be found in a textbook or a lecture than in the boardroom. The phrase was coined in 1999 by Prof. Amy Edmonson of Harvard Business School, who quantified it as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes”. She suggested that, beyond making people feel good, a psychologically safe business environment generates positive business outcomes, with teams that felt comfortable enough to challenge leaders and report mistakes, thereby proving more successful.

Creating such an environment requires demystifying the concept of psychological safety, translating it into approaches that management and staff can relate to and put into practice. In the past, conversations about safety at work have related to physical safety, or perhaps functional safety; now, the conversation is turning towards feeling safe psychologically. How can a business craft an environment where staff feel safe to speak up, to voice opinions, an environment where no idea is belittled, and everyone’s opinion has value?  When team members are emotionally secure in the workplace, research shows they are more engaged and productive. After all, the best ideas emerge from different perspectives; more points of view will enrich creative processes, leading to ideas that would not have emerged otherwise.

When protected by a working culture that promotes psychological safety, employees have more opportunity to step up and self-lead, working with a purpose aligned to that of the company. In this environment, there is less need for external motivation and the ability to innovate is heightened. In the post-Covid landscape, resilient teams will be built on role clarity, confidence and agility, with innovation powered by psychological safety an essential for business success.

Business leaders should consider whether their environment promotes a psychologically safe experience for all staff, and the potential benefits for the business under this model. Every organisation can benefit from a culture of inclusion, diverse thought, and the security to express individual perspectives without fear. As a Grant Thornton partner concludes in the report, “The world will be more adventurous, safer and merrier when we are comfortable in each other’s company”.