A focus on psychological safety can deeply reduce attrition, report says

Psychological safety in the workplace, or the feeling of being able to speak up and take risks without fear of being blamed or criticized, can lead to higher motivation, happiness and retention, according to a Jan. 4 report from Boston Consulting Group.

Among employees reporting the lowest levels of psychological safety, 12% said they were likely to quit within a year. However, among those with high levels of psychological safety, only 3% were at risk of quitting.

In addition, the report found that empathetic leadership — which shows understanding and respect for team members’ perspectives, emotions and life situations — is a key driver of psychological safety and its benefits.

“Collective buy-in from the team is important, but leaders have an outsize impact when it comes to building psychological safety,” Nadjia Yousif, chief diversity officer at BCG, said in a statement.

“They set the tone by being role models and signaling what behaviors will be rewarded and what won’t be tolerated,” she said. “Psychological safety can flourish only if it’s driven from the top.”

In a survey of 28,000 professionals across 16 countries, psychological safety was associated with employees feeling 2.1-times more motivated, 2.7-times happier and 3.3-times more enabled to reach their full potential at work.

These effects were particularly pronounced among women, people of color, LGBTQ+ employees, people with disabilities and those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. 

For instance, among employees who experience psychological safety at work, retention increased by more than four times for women and for those who identify as Black, Indigenous or people of color. Retention also increased by five times for people with disabilities and by six times for LGBTQ+ employees. In comparison, retention increased by two times for men not in these groups.

However, in workplaces where psychological safety was low, attrition was higher among members of diverse groups. In the bottom 30% of the psychological safety spectrum, 18% of LGBTQ+ employees were at risk of attrition, as compared with 12% of straight and cisgender employees. 

Among those in the top 30% of the psychological safety spectrum, the attrition risk gap between the groups narrowed dramatically, leading to a 3% attrition risk for all.

The BCG report noted tactics to foster psychological safety in the workplace. For instance, leaders can encourage sharing and learning among employees by setting aside time in meetings for people to connect with one another as humans.

Leaders can also hold regular team reflections to celebrate what the team is doing well and discuss areas for improvement. During feedback sessions, criticism should focus on the work, not the person, according to the report. Finally, leaders should be open and authentic by sharing their own mistakes and lessons learned with the team.

Without psychological safety, employees have a lower sense of belonging and engagement, according to a report from The Courage Collective. This leads to higher turnover among people of color, especially among those in management roles.

Psychological safety at work takes time, according to a McLean & Co. report, which builds on three pillars. First, leaders should work to prevent harm, including physical, emotional and psychological harm. Next, workplaces should promote health, including physical, emotional and psychological health. Finally, leaders should resolve incidents and concerns in a responsible way.

Another key is empowering employees to speak up, particularly during performance reviews but also year-round, Reggie Willis, the chief diversity officer at Ally Financial, wrote for HR Dive. When employees feel safe, they’re more likely to be open, which will help leaders to gain insights into their strengths, weaknesses and goals.