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Establishing Trust and Psychological Safety in the Workplace: 3 Strategies For Your Team

By Corry Robertson

What is psychological safety?

Amy Edmondson, an organizational behavioral scientist and professor at Harvard Business School first identified the concept of psychological safety in work teams back in 1999. 

More recently she published a book called “The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth”

Edmondson describes psychological safety as “a shared belief held by individuals that their team is a safe place for interpersonal risk taking.” 

She also explains that team members who feel safe “feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.”

In the era of Covid 19, I would add to this that psychological safety also means that employees can be transparent with their team and leaders about the challenges that come from working at home. 

Those realities need to be taken seriously so that everyone whole heartedly demonstrates that they are doing all in their power to find new ways to make the workday work.

Why is psychological safety important?

Project Aristotle, a research study by Google, found that individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates and they bring in more revenue. 

From an executive point of view, they’re rated as twice as effective.

The study found that “In the end, there is one thing that determines the highest performance, and that is psychological safety.”

Low psychological safety can cause your employees to hide their mistakes, keep their mouths shut when they have legitimate concerns and cover up for their peers. 

This can cause immediate as well as long term damage to your team and your company. 

How do we define trust in the workplace?

Trust is ‘a psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon the positive expectations of the intentions or behavior of another’ (Rousseau, Sitkin, Burt, & Camerer, 1998, p. 395).

This means being able to rely on someone to follow through as promised, and a sense that a person will consistently behave with leadership skills in a respectful, professional manner.

Trust means you have a feeling of confidence in someone whereas a lack of trust is often expressed as a sense of being ‘kept in the dark’ or being anxious and uncertain of someone’s motives or interests. 

A lack of trust means not knowing what reaction to expect or what mood the person will bring into the room.

It means never knowing what will satisfy the manager or what will provoke negative, unproductive feedback.

Why is trust important?

Trust is motivating and it’s the job of leaders to know how to tap into what motivates people.

On teams where there is trust, people are more likely to be engaged, more energetic, happier, they have a better sense of wellbeing and performance is not only optimal, but sustainable.

The Harvard Business Review reported studies by the Queens School of Business and by the Gallup Organization, that revealed:

  • Disengaged workers had 37% higher absences, 49% more accidents, and caused 60% more errors and defects. 
  • In organizations with low employee engagement scores, they experienced 18% lower productivity, 16% lower profitability, 37% lower job growth, and 65% lower share price over time.

Research shows that workplace stress leads to an increase in turnover. Lack of loyalty has a high price tag.

To build trust and faith in the system, institutions must step outside of their traditional roles and work toward new, more integrated operating models that put people — and the addressing of their fears — at the center of everything they do.

When trust is lacking, this affects productivity and organizational performance. 

Employees spend precious time and energy watching out for management and covering their own backs and managers spend their precious time checking up on employees. 

A  breakdown in trust at work causes stress and anxiety on both sides. Lack of trust and safety causes stress and stress is destructive to the well being of people and therefore to the wellbeing of the company.

How do you evaluate your team’s level of psychological safety?

A person feels psychologically safe on their team when they feel:

  • they don’t always have to have the answer 
  • they can be in learning mode by asking questions and asking for clarification
  • they can ask for feedback and know what they will hear will be meaningful, constructive and helpful
  • they can own up to mistakes, they can disagree, voice or try a new idea 
  • they feel respected for being intelligent and competent
  • the learning environment is free of people being ridiculed, rejected, disrespected, berated, intimidated, ignored, or bullied

Teams who have psychological safety are not stressed out that being in learning mode will come back to haunt them with negative performance evaluations, or with being passed over for interesting projects.  

Asking questions and owning up to mistakes will not equate to being passed over for advancement, or being exposed to the real or implied threat of termination.

What are the signs that there is a lack of trust and safety at your company?

Symptoms of distrust show up in the way people describe their situation. 

You can listen for tell tale verbal clues when people say things like:

He’s out for himself

I feel burned

There’s too much red tape

I’m walking on eggshells

I have to watch my back

I keep my cards close to my chest

Also listen for complaints of:

Being micromanaged

Office politics

Sabotage

Not feeling heard, recognized or valued

Scandals, corruption, dishonesty, favouritism

High turnover or inability to fill roles

Stress related behaviour can also look like:

People rushing because there is never enough time

Conflict

Overextended behaviours like people being argumentative, goal fixated or overbearing, withdrawn, needy, or obsessed by consensus

To know for sure, get curious. 

A psychological trust survey for your team

Consider conducting a survey that includes discovery questions like these that were designed by Amy Edmondson:

  1. If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you? 
  2. As a member of this team are you able to bring up problems and tough issues?
  3. Are you or people on this team sometimes rejected by others for being different?
  4. Is it safe to take a risk on this team?
  5. Is it difficult to ask other members for help?
  6. Would anyone on this team deliberately act in a way that undermines your efforts?
  7. If when working with members of this team, are your unique skills and talents valued and utilized?

If you do decide to run a survey like this, it’s important to hire an objective, third party who will guarantee confidentiality to conduct this for you. 

To build trust and safety, you need to demonstrate that you have taken the appropriate measures.

3 key coaching strategies you can use to create trust and safety in your workplace

Those who know me have heard me say it a thousand times: coaching is leadership in action.

Amy Edmondson’s advice for leading teams dovetails beautifully with the professional coaching competencies leaders and managers (and coaches!) use to establish trust and safety.

For example, she suggests that leaders:

  • Framework as a learning opportunity, not an execution problem
  • Acknowledge their own fallibility
  • Model curiosity and ask lots of questions 

Using this framework, here are 3 coaching strategies that can help you lead your team towards trust and psychological safety by drawing on professional coaching competencies:

Coaching Strategy #1 – Develop and Model Curiosity

Curiosity is a superpower that coaches cultivate through effective communication skills.

Being genuinely curious means that you drop your judgment and you embrace the beginner’s mind…the mind that has no answers, no agenda and no map, only the sincere quest to explore, learn and understand.

It’s very difficult for most people to do this because it means letting go of the equity you have tied up in being the smartest most experienced person in the room.

Honestly, curiosity is counter culture to the workplace that rewards how smart people are and how quickly they can transform their knowledge into solutions.

But I call it a superpower for a reason. 

Being the person who can ask powerful questions means being the person who can ignite awareness that then leads to learning, that leads to innovation that leads to breakthroughs and growth.

And that is a pretty spectacular person, one we can all aspire to be.

According to an article in Fast Company, Henry Evans and Colm Foster explain that asking questions in a certain way “allows others to feel that you respect them and are debating their ideas rather than judging them because of their ideas. Doing so promotes healthy conflict, and others will not hesitate to bring you even those seemingly wacky ideas that prove to be invaluable.”

It takes a humble approach to be curious.

Coaching Strategy #2 – Break the “Golden Rule”

The coaching approach to establishing trust and safety asks you to break the “Golden Rule”.

What is the golden rule? You’ve heard it before – treat others as you’d like to be treated.

But when it comes to psychological safety, the opposite is true. You need to treat others as THEY would like to be treated. 

Take the time to ask your team members and direct reports what they’d prefer regarding things like frequency of check-ins, style of communication, type of feedback, etc.

Invest in robust psychometric assessments to help foster your ability to speed read others, your ability to take the pulse on when people are overextended and why, and then build your capacity to flex your style to the needs of others in the appropriate way.

Coaching Strategy #3 – Embrace Your Empathy 

Empathy is another coaching superpower.  But it’s important to understand the difference between sympathy and empathy.

SYMPATHY is acknowledging that the other person is going through an emotional or physical struggle and offering them comfort.

EMPATHY is this and something more than this. Empathy is actually understanding what the other person is feeling because you’ve had a similar experience yourself or you’re able to put yourself in their shoes and actually feel strong feelings with them.

In coaching, empathy involves reflecting on a person’s experience with and how they are feeling about it. 

We don’t judge their feelings. We just hold space and let them experience their truth.

Why? 

A person’s experience and feelings about that experience are valid. Period.

Feeling validated helps them feel that they have a right to the emotions that they are having.  It helps them process, it helps them heal, and they can move forward and become more resilient because of it.

To build your leadership skill of empathy, try an exercise called “Just Like Me” to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

The next time you are at odds with someone, for whatever reason, say to yourself that this person is:

“Just Like Me,” 

Say to yourself :

  • This person has beliefs, perspectives, and opinions, just like me.
  • This person has hopes, anxieties, and vulnerabilities, just like me.
  • This person has friends, family, and perhaps children who love them, just like me.
  • This person wants to feel respected, appreciated, and competent, just like me.
  • This person wishes for peace, joy, and happiness, just like me.

Practicing this mindset allows you to wake up your inner empath. 

It allows you to remember what coaches know: people are doing their best, striving for positive results while also trying to have their basic human needs met… just like you.

How are trust and safety related to resilience?

We all know that resilience is important, especially in this age of complexity and change.  

But in order for our employees to be resilient – they need trust and psychological safety.  

These 2 things go hand in hand.

Employees can easily disengage, hide below the radar, do the minimum and just do what they are told.

But we know that it’s not sustainable for a business to have employees operate this way and we know that employees will leave organizations when they feel they can’t learn, grow and develop.

For work cultures to be effective, employees need a new way of being well.

The employee’s role in this era is to develop a sense of inner resilience – this takes effort that can only be made if they are in a trusting and safe environment.

Conclusion

Creating a coaching culture in your workplace is the best way to create that trust and safety that is so vitally important.  

And learning HOW to coach is one of the most important skills you’ll learn as a leader.

Teams that have high levels of trust and psychological safety are more effective, more engaged, more energetic, and not only are they more likely to achieve optimal levels of performance, they are more likely to be able to sustain those high levels.

In this era of Covid-19 and pandemic fatigue, creating a safe and supportive environment in the workplace is more essential than ever.  Using coaching skills and strategies can help your team to not only survive but to thrive.