Psychological Safety in the Workplace

During the past year, in my work context at DND/CAF’s Chief, Professional Conduct and Culture, I have been hearing about, thinking about, learning about, and strategizing about “Inclusion.” What is it? How can we, as a Defence Team, become more inclusive? What behaviours can I practice in my everyday life to make those around me feel more included?

One definition of inclusion that has been used in the DND/CAF is as follows: “a collective culture in which people feel valued, respected, connected, psychologically safe, involved in decision-making, recognized as having unique characteristics that contribute to organizational success, and empowered to bring their authentic selves to the workplace.” (CPCC, 2021)

This is a great vision of a preferred future state for us to work towards, and as I have witnessed over the past year, these efforts are already well underway in DND/CAF. Let’s pull out one term from the definition of inclusion to consider further: “psychological safety.” According to Timothy Clark, psychological safety is the ability to interact with others without fear of negative consequences. In other words, it’s not socially, emotionally, politically, or economically expensive to be yourself.”

As shown in his diagram below, he proposed 4 increasing stages of psychological safety. First, we could feel 1) included, then 2) safe to learn, then 3) safe to contribute, and then, ultimately, 4) safe to challenge the status quo without feel of reprisal or being made to feel embarrassed. As shown in the diagram, this fourth stage is where innovation can take place. What a worthwhile goal when, frankly, we don’t already have all the solutions figured out! When we understand that new, creative, and valuable solutions can come from all levels across a diverse workforce, we start to understand the immense value of what can come from a psychologically safe workplace, in which even the ultimate stage of this model, “challenger safety,” is assured to all individuals- regardless of rank, trade, gender, age, sexual orientation, country of origin, etc.

So, how can we build psychological safety in our workplaces? I will share some brief examples of actions you can take, to grow the four stages, as suggested by Timothy Clark (2020).

#1: To make others feel included: introduce yourself; ask twice as much as you tell; express gratitude and appreciation; ask for feedback and for help; create bonding opportunities; and ask about others’ needs and challenges.

#2: To make others feel safe to learn: make learning collaborative; share what you have been learning, your past mistakes, and your learning goals; de-stigmatize failure (it’s often the most effective way to learn!); ask for feedback and embrace it- regardless of where it comes from.

#3: To make others feel safe to contribute: recognize accomplishments; celebrate small wins; shift from tell to ask; give “stretch” assignments; help others see their strengths; accept bad news; and reward those who take on additional responsibilities.

#4: To make others feel safe to challenge the status quo & innovate: assign the role to someone to dissent/ to challenge a certain course of action i.e. give them license to disagree; model and reward vulnerability; create diverse teams; challenge your own decisions; put a hypothesis on the table; and bring in additional outsider views.

If we wish to advance towards a more inclusive workplace environment that is more welcoming to diverse people with different skills and experiences, we must all make deliberate efforts, both personally and organizationally, towards increasing psychological safety. Whether the context is in a field unit, a hanger, on a ship, in a school, within the HQ cubicle farm, or at home in a video-conference with colleagues, we can all make small behavioural changes, such as those recommended by Clark (2020) above. These types of small efforts can strengthen our teams. On the larger organizational scale, these multiplied efforts can, indeed, lead to advancing towards a more inclusive workplace and the overall cultural transformation so many of us are now seeking.

References:

Clark, T. (2020) The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Behavioral Guide.

CPCC. (2021). Initiating Directive on the Integration of the Measurement of Inclusive Behaviours in the Defence Team.