Psychological safety is not one-size-fits-all, report says

Employees don’t all experience psychological safety in the workplace in the same way, so employers need to consider the unique lived experiences of a variety of demographics, according to a March 14 report by McLean & Co.

By creating psychological safety through an inclusive lens, employees can speak up, take risks and be authentic without the fear of negative consequences, the report found.

“Establishing psychological safety in the workplace is not a quick fix or a simple checklist item on the organizational to-do list,” Elysca Fernandes, director of HR research and advisory services at McLean & Co., said in a statement.

“Successfully building psychologically safe workplaces requires acknowledging that employees’ unique intersectional characteristics influence how they experience psychological safety at work,” she said. “This is why conversations around diversity, equity and inclusion are one of the first opportunities to recognize that psychological safety is not a universal experience and approaches to fostering safety must meet individual needs.”

According to the report, three key elements of psychological safety should be aligned consistently to foster safety in the workplace:

  1. Organizational norms: Companies need shared standards of acceptable behavior that are socially enforced and guide interactions across all levels. For instance, leaders can establish ground rules for DEI sessions where people share their personal experiences.
  2. Leadership behaviors: Senior leaders and managers should adopt certain actions, values and characteristics, such as being humble and apologizing for mistakes rather than acting defensively.
  3. Artifacts: Companies also need processes, policies and procedures that prioritize employee experience and safety, such as introducing and reinforcing an anti-discrimination policy.

Workplaces that lack psychological safety drive away workers of color, according to a report from The Courage Collective. When employees don’t feel safe voicing dissent, their sense of belonging decreases, which leads to lower engagement and retention.

In contrast, a focus on psychological safety can drastically reduce attrition and lead to higher motivation, happiness and retention, according to a Boston Consulting Group report. Empathetic leadership, which shows understanding and respect for workers’ perspectives and life situations, drives psychological safety and its benefits, the report found.

Of course, establishing psychological safety in the workplace takes time, according to another report from McLean & Co. It takes an ongoing effort that requires commitment from stakeholders and alignment between company norms, leadership and daily actions, a McLean & Co. expert said.