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How to Build Psychological Safety in Teams

14th May 21

Psychological safety is built on the understanding that everyone in the team, company, family or community are working together. This not only includes the completion of tasks, but others in the community doing their bit for the benefit of all.

The reason for this is because humans are a tribal species. It’s our ability to work together that has enabled us to survive the predations of apex predators, or weather that could otherwise kill us.

Equally, wherever humans settle we form communities that work together towards mutual survival. When individuals or groups within the tribe start acting in their own self interest the tribe either collapses or splits away.

To put that in a modern context, when someone disagrees with the way a company is being run, they find a company (tribe) that better suits their view. Or they start one of their own.

While society has advanced a great deal since we lived in caves, the need for psychological safety hasn’t. Psychologically speaking we are as emotionally advanced as we were 100,000 years ago.

The sense of anxiety we feel from a workplace bully is the same our ancestors would have felt being hunted by a predator. On an emotional level we cannot make the distinction – we are under threat and we need to fight or run.

When you apply this principle to something as complex as a business it’s easy to see how employees can feel overwhelmed or isolated. Especially if the business isn’t great at making the mental wellbeing of their people a priority.

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How to Spot a Toxic Culture

Toxic work cultures are far more common than one might expect. They also take many forms so it’s not always easy to realise that normal for your organisation isn’t normal at all.

Gossip and Drama are Commonplace

Office politics and the occasional drama can be common at work. After all, working in close proximity with people who have differing views can cause tension. This is normal and in a healthy working environment differences of opinion can be respected and a compromise reached.

However, if you find that there are rivalries between departments or individuals that disrupt work, that’s a problem. Similarly, if gossip is a currency within the office alarm bells should be ringing. Especially if it’s coming from the same people.

It’s important to differentiate a line manager sharing developments within the company that they arguably shouldn’t. This is them exercising managerial discretion to share with you something they feel you should be aware of.

If the line manager is using one-to-ones to complain about other team members or spread gossip, then that’s a sign of a toxic manager.

People leave. A lot.

High staff turnover should always be a red flag. If you’re applying for a job always ask why the person you’re replacing is leaving. If it’s a new post then it’s reasonable to ask how long people have worked in the business for.

If you’re in a company where there’s always someone leaving you should be asking why. Whether it was like that when you joined the business or not, it’s something to be concerned about.

According to research conducted by SHRM, one in five employees leave a job because of the culture. Twenty percent of an organisation’s workforce disliked the culture and working environment so much that they left.

However, the same survey suggested that 49% of people regularly consider leaving their role. This means the 20% of the workforce who leave actually represents 40% of the people who are actively considering their future with the company.

The up shot of this is: if there’s a high rate of turnover within the business there’s a good chance it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

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Confusion Reigns

Within a toxic culture, confusion will be commonplace. Communication will be poor, and the people tasked with doing the work won’t be given all the information they need to succeed.

Toxic environments are a breeding ground for confusion because trust is in short supply and power struggles are common. This causes people to horde their resources, power and influence making it difficult – if not impossible – to get anything done. Or at least without pandering to egos or owing someone a favour.

This lack of trust also makes it difficult for teams to collaborate on projects. The credit and associated praise becomes a bigger concern than doing the job properly. This is assuming the information has been shared fairly between the teams.

There’s a Fear of Failure

Mistakes happen. It’s a part of life and part of learning. The trick is to keep them to a minimum, own up when they’re yours and be mature enough to apologise.

In a toxic work environment, failure is seen as something to be avoided at all costs. And finding someone to blame is more important than fixing the problem.

Equally sanction is a priority over training and development. So, when mistakes are made those responsible are punished rather than supported so those mistakes don’t happen again.

In these environments covering ones back is an essential part of the job and excuses and finger pointing is as common as office gossip.

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There is a lack of Motivation

If you factor in the above points, a lack of motivation would hardly be surprising. Yet poor motivation can happen all on its own as well.

This in part can be due to bad hiring practices. If a manager thinks all salespeople are untrustworthy and/or unreliable, it won’t surprise anyone to find the sales team full of backstabbing layabouts.

Equally, managers who don’t allow their people the independence to do their jobs will lack initiative. Management intervention will be needed increasingly for them to do their jobs, deepening the issue.

Around 93% of workers say they’re less productive when forced to work with people with bad attitudes. But bad attitudes tend to be contagious, infecting previously upbeat and productive members of the team.

Inevitably morale crumbles and those individuals who were positive and proactive either succumb to the rot all around them or leave.

An Environment of Psychological Safety

If you’re a business owner, manager or team leader, the bulk of the responsibility to create a positive culture rests with you.

Your decisions, reactions and behaviour sets the behavioural base line and the moral authority for others to follow. If you are neglectful, rude, abusive or bemoan employee performance, you are creating an environment that excuses that behaviour in others.

If you are supportive, positive, patient and all the other things one would expect to find in an inspirational leader, your teams will follow your lead.

Safety comes from above. It’s the way humans operate, we are hierarchical in nature. When we lived in caves, we relied on the strongest to protect the tribe and to feed us.

As agriculture provided us with food and technology provided us safe homes and protection from threats, we looked to the wealthy (business owners) to keep us safe through jobs and money.

The feeling of safety in our job and in our team is the anthropological equivalent of an alpha with a spear fending off a predator. Take that away and that feeling of safety quickly evaporates.

Team cohesion breaks down as everyone reverts to their baser fight or flight response. In other words, people start covering their backs, rather than supporting the team. Performance drops, dissatisfaction and unhappiness increases.

It also increases staff turnover – adds an average of 15% on to staffing costs because you’re always recruiting – and tarnishes your company’s reputation.

In short, building an environment of psychological safety is a lot cheaper than making no effort with your people.

Not least because employee trends overwhelmingly point to the fact that workers are more likely to take lower paying jobs if they can work for companies with positive cultures, good work life balance and good benefits.

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What You Can Do

The first thing you can do to create psychological safety is to look at your own behaviour and identify what you can do differently.

If your response to someone with mental health issues, or who is struggling emotionally, is to tell them to cheer up you’re about 50 years out of touch.

Mental health issues are one of the biggest drains on the economy, costing between £74-99 billion and 72 million workings days every year. This makes mental health the number one reason for absence from work. While not all mental health issues are caused by the working environment, it’s long been established that they are a direct contributing factor.

The 1967 Whitehall Studies determined poor treatment of workers leads to an increase in stress-related illnesses. Employees who were treated poorly, who were shown little trust and given little or no autonomy over their work succumbed to more illnesses due to job stress.

It demonstrated the psychosocial work environment could predict rates of sickness absence. It also highlighted the benefits of support in workplaces and the positive affect on health, wellbeing and productivity.

The reason for all this is because psychologically humans can’t distinguish a company from a tribe. Being mistreated by your employer is a similar kind of psychological abuse as being mistreated by your family.

So, the first thing you can do is break the cycle. Consider enrolling on to a leadership course to improve your skills. This will help you to positively support your team rather than control them through fear, intimidation, and threat of punitive measures.

You’ll be surprised at how quickly the behaviour – and therefore the performance – of the team will change.

You should also consider taking a course in mental health. One in four adults experience mental health issues every year, which means you’re likely working with someone who is struggling.

A course like Mental Health in the Workplace: For Managers will give you the insight and the skills you need to open a dialogue with your team. And possibly help people get the support they need.

Where to Begin

Culture change doesn’t happen over night but there are plenty of resources available to help you. Mental health charities like Mind are an excellent source of free and helpful advice.

As a leading UK online course provider, we offer a range of leadership and mentoring courses as well as mental health courses. These can help you to develop the skills and knowledge to build a culture of psychological safety in your organisation.

For more information about our mental health courses click the button below. To learn more about online courses and distance learning, check out our blog.

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