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How to create psychological safety

Many workplace problems can be nipped in the bud if we speak freely about doubts, mistakes and concerns. Read an expert's good advice below.

7. Feb 2023
5 min
English / Dansk


Mistakes, misunderstandings and conflicts. Disappointing results and poor well-being...

Life at work can be full of big and small problems, and if we don’t feel comfortable among each other, then we have another problem: we won’t be able to solve them together.

So says Christian Ørsted, management consultant (MSc in Economics and Business Administration), author, guest speaker and lecturer in psychological safety.

“Psychological safety is the belief that we can talk freely about the actual issue. That both employees and managers dare point to mistakes, doubts, concerns, etc., because they feel confident that they won’t be marginalised or punished,” he explains.

The responsibility of everybody and the manager especially

Silence and backscratching are often signs of a lack of psychological safety. This makes us withdraw from others and withhold our observations. As a result, we won’t be asking the unexpected and undiolomatic  questions that may prevent mistakes.

“Psychological safety is not about us liking each other and having a good time together. It is an advantage, but the key point is that we respect each other and take an inter
est in the contributions made and accept them in a proper way,” Christian Ørsted concludes.
According to him, it is not that interesting whether the level of psychological safety is high or low in the overall group. What matters is the spread: that it is perceived differently within the same group. If psychological safety is low for one person, it affects the whole group because less is shared with each other.

Fortunately, all employees have the power to pull safety in a positive direction.

“It is everybody’s responsibility, but, by virtue of their powers, managers have a special responsibility for putting it on the agenda and establishing the necessary framework,” says Christian Ørsted.

Three steps to psychological safety

The path to psychological safety consists of three steps.

But first it is crucial to understand the importance of safety and recognise that there are things we are not told if safety is lacking. This means surprisingly much: all problems become visible retrospectively if the level of psychological safety is low. Conversely, if we manage to create psychological safety, we can achieve things that we couldn’t before, Christian Ørsted points out.

And you don't have to wait for a particularly good day to get started. Do it when you are about to take on your daily challenges anyway, because they are the starting point, he advises.

1. The framework: This is the point of departure in terms of what we're going to do and who is going to do it: You give priority to and are committed to each other. Be clear about agreements and expectations. What is your common goal? Setting the framework for the goal is a joint responsibility. Do it based on everyday life — it's not enough with buzz words from management or the staff manual.

2. How do you invite others to contribute and give their opinion: How do you ask questions to each other, and are they genuinely curious? Do you have conversations where all parties offer their opinions, contribute and become wiser?

Transparency provides safety; knowing where we all stand. Even when we disagree. Tell it to others and ask those you disagree with to clarify. Show continuous interest in each other — during ups and downs.

If an employee wants to show the manager his/her support by agreeing with the manager, the manager must make sure the employee feels it is safe to provide other input as well. For example, the manager might say “that's just my take on it” and ask: “What do you see that I don't?”

3. Respond constructively: How do you react to mistakes, disagreements and new ideas? Show appreciation, curiosity and thankfulness for the discovery. Don't settle for a report on what's happened – make sure you destigmatise any missteps and ask how you may help with a problem. Then you'll be on the same side instead of pulling in different directions.

If, for example, someone displays disrespectful or abusive behaviour, return to step 1 and outline the rules: We don't talk that way here...



Psychological safety: Four focal points

Christian Ørsted highlights four key focal points that Harvard professor and author Amy Edmondson has identified through her many years of working on psychological safety:

The willingness to use and help each other: Do you value and use each other's special skills and abilities? Do you care about each other’s competencies — continuously and with renewed interest? Focus on your daily life at work — not on rare toasts and performance reviews.

Attitudes to talking about mistakes: This step is not about making tons of mistakes; it's about expecting that mistakes happen, and so it's important not to make it shameful that they are brought to light. The earlier mistakes are discovered, the easier it is to do something about them.

Open conversations — also about difficult things: Get to the point straight away and narrow it down: what do you find difficult? It may be specific tricky tasks or saying no to others. Try changing the dialogue from who is difficult to what is difficult. What do you have to conquer together?

The belief that you can be yourself: Discrimination reveals whether we are able to talk about things. If people who stand out from the crowd — in terms of gender, age, ethnicity, professionalism, etc. — are not respected, it is a sign of how people with a different mentality are treated. Then, the majority will express only conform opinions.

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