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Psychological Safety in the Workplace

A percentage of professionals and leaders in the Australian business community are over a month into very different working arrangements. People and teams are adjusting and finding new ways to work, new ways to cope with challenges, and leaders are operating in ways that they have not tried before. The first stage of adjustment, the practical one, has come and gone, and many of our teams are into the second stage of adjustment, which is far more emotional.

The novelty has worn off, and people may be losing focus or energy, perhaps experiencing a range of negative emotions.

As touched upon in earlier articles about remote teams and coping with pressure, leaders need to be purpose-led and people-focused and lead in a way that your team will look to and look up to. A helpful concept to embrace and explore as part of being a people-focused leader is the concept of ‘psychological safety at work’. This concept has proven to be a helpful discipline when organisations develop an adaptive and resilient culture. We have reflected on the concept of psychological safety at work and sought to interpret some key points into practical ways of applying the concept to your leadership approach.

Within the context of a workplace, psychological safety is an employee’s perception of what consequences will come from taking interpersonal risk (Edmonson & Lei, 2014). By understanding psychological safety, we can understand why employees feel comfortable with sharing information, speaking up with suggestions and taking initiative. It is not only a leader’s responsibility to promote psychological safety amongst employees, but an employee’s responsibility to nurture their own feeling of safety when working with teams. Below are five areas relevant to the construct of psychological safety at work. Leaders can be mindful of these areas and employees can also work deliberately to establish their psychological safety with their team. These five areas are:

  1. Engagement in work

  2. Understanding of others

  3. Interpersonal inclusivity

  4. Inclusive decision making and

  5. Confidence with flexibility.

Leadership should look to encourage team engagement and employees to engage themselves in their work activities. It is important as a team member to not only be there physically, but to be mentally present. Some practical guidelines on being really engaged at work and with your work colleagues are active listening, leaning into the conversation, asking questions and being open to learning from others. Make a conscious effort to show you are engaged, think about your body language (even if it is via a video conference) and what message you are communicating to others about your commitment.

Showing understanding is another important construct in the arena of psychological safety at work. Make an effort as a leader and team member to understand and communicate your understanding to others. Once again, as a practical guide, fill your responses with statements like;

“I understand you”

“What you are saying is that…”

“I agree”

“I hear your point but…”.

Communicate what you understand, clarify what you don’t understand, be comfortable to agree and disagree and be open to asking and accepting questions form team members. Encouraging open communication and open-mindedness will support psychological safety.

Another strong guiding principal in the area of psychological safety is being inclusive, both on an interpersonal level but also how we make decisions. But what do you mean by practising interpersonal inclusivity? Nice concept, but what does that translate to in real life? There are plenty of examples but here are some guides to put into practice; as a leader, practice interpersonal inclusivity by sharing your working style and preferences with your team so they know what to expect. Also, get interested in the working style and preferences of others, now is a good time to get to know your team with a deeper level of understanding and showing that they can trust you. Be approachable and show gratitude for their contributions. This will help build rapport among the team and address any negative talk about other members.

Be inclusive with decision-making; look to be collaborative and inclusive in your decision making. Allow your colleagues and team members to feel safe to share their opinions and input. To do this create an environment where all views are considered with an open mind and interruptions aren’t allowed. Acknowledge others input and clearly communicate your reasoning behind your decisions.

Being flexible as well as confident in your leadership is essential to create psychological safety. This is one of those points that makes real sense when we test it with logic. For example; a leader who is confident and bold in their decisions and direction, yet they are inflexible and rigid, well they can find that their team does not really attach to their vision very strongly and they actually hold off in-case their views are not accepted. Think also about the leader who is flexible, able to pivot and change their view, yet they are not confident. They may not inspire a lot of confidence in their team about following them. Some tips to be confident yet flexible are to manage a healthy team discussion and invite the team to challenge your perspective. Encourage risk taking and demonstrate risks of your own. Don’t get stuck to an idea or opinion and be open to changing direction.

Paul Santagata, Head of Industry at Google, sums up for us perfectly in saying, “There’s no team without trust.” And by following these tips you can build a safe environment for your team members to thrive and be the best they can be.


Incorporate Psychology (ICP) is continuing to work with organisations throughout this period. We are available for phone and Skype consultations with leaders, executive teams and broader organisations. Should you, or your leaders, require EAP or individual support, guidance, further tips and training, please contact us at or contact Matt Dale directly on 0411 113 617.

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