Leaders rightfully spend a lot of time thinking about how to make the work environment a psychologically safe space.
But in order to create psychological safety, it’s critical to start by understanding what — exactly — employees want to feel safe to do. Feeling safe to take risks and make mistakes, speak up when others need to be challenged, and show up as your authentic self without feeling excluded are all important — and according to science — all meaningfully different.
In each case, psychological safety is coming from a slightly different source — and requires a different set of capabilities or interventions from leaders to facilitate.
3 kinds of psychological safety
Safety comes in interrelated varieties.
1. Safe to be yourself
Leaders can create psychological safety so that employees feel free to express themselves authentically, without the need for “covering,” or the concealment of identity, to try to fit in. At NLI, we think about this through the lens of social threat and reward, as captured by the SCARF® Model.
Research suggests that it is the subtle signals of status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness that we receive in our everyday interactions with others that create the sense of inclusion that gives rise to this type of psychological safety. Leaders — and team members — can learn how to proactively send these rewarding signals in meetings, check-ins, and while communicating about team projects.
2. Safe to speak up
The sense of psychological safety that helps employees speak up more at work, when they need to challenge another person about their behavior or decision—making, is also a function of SCARF® — in this case, SCARF® threats.
Specifically, they may worry about retribution (against themselves or others), or being less liked or valued by the person they are challenging, and feel a paralyzing sense of uncertainty and helplessness. If those that speak up — and their leaders — learn how to make speaking up conversations less threatening my managing SCARF® threat, research has shown they are more likely to feel safe to do what is right, and best for the organization.
3. Safe to take risks and make mistakes
Last but not least, there is the sense of psychological safety that enables employees to see challenges as opportunities, experiment more, and recognize that skills are improvable — not set in stone. This is created when employees are encouraged to think with a growth mindset.
In a growth mindset organizational culture, risk-taking is encouraged since mistakes are seen as part of a larger learning and innovation trajectory. To foster growth mindset and the form psychological safety it supports, leaders can not only learn to practice growth mindset behaviors, like sharing mistakes and focusing on progress, but can publicly role model these behaviors their teams to encourage their broad adoption.
Taking the next step
These examples highlight how leaders can leverage different kinds of psychological safety for multiple end goals.
To do that, they can ask themselves questions like, What do I want my employees to feel safe to do? Which type of threat do I need to manage, in order to create that particular sense of safety on my team and in my organization?
In management, as in medicine, the key is proper diagnosis. Once you’ve identified the safety you’re actually trying to solve for — whether around belonging, speaking up, or taking risks — then you’ll know which course of action to take.