3 Ways to Improve Psychological Safety | California Benefits Team

Employ­ees who feel a sense of psy­cho­log­i­cal safe­ty at work are more like­ly to be engaged, pro­duc­tive and gen­er­at­ing the inno­v­a­tive ideas need­ed to move an orga­ni­za­tion forward—but pro­mot­ing that type of envi­ron­ment requires sig­nif­i­cant com­mit­ment on the part of the employ­er, a process that can be sup­port­ed by HR leaders.

At a ses­sion at last month’s Health & Ben­e­fits Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence, Rachel Druck­en­miller, direc­tor of well­be­ing at nation­al ben­e­fits-con­sult­ing firm Alera Group, empha­sized the impor­tance of psy­cho­log­i­cal safe­ty at work.

“Fear stunts our ana­lyt­i­cal think­ing, our abil­i­ty to be cre­ative; essen­tial­ly, we’re ‘dumb­er’ when we’re oper­at­ing out of a state of fear,” she told the audi­ence, not­ing a fear-induc­ing envi­ron­ment acti­vates the amygdala—the fear response in our brain—and we can only focus on sur­viv­ing, not thriving.

From a busi­ness per­spec­tive, she said, an envi­ron­ment in which employ­ees are too anx­ious to speak up or wor­ried about humil­i­a­tion stymies growth and innovation.

“Peo­ple put on a mask and only show the parts of them­selves they think some­one else will approve of,” she said. In psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly safe envi­ron­ments, how­ev­er, “they can let their guard down. They’re not in self-pro­tec­tion mode, wor­ry­ing about who they can trust—so they can prob­lem solve and be cre­ative. All pos­i­tive things hap­pen when we’re not focused on try­ing to pro­tect ourselves.”

Druck­en­miller cit­ed three ways employ­ers can get seri­ous about improv­ing the psy­cho­log­i­cal safe­ty of their workforces:


Man­agers, as well as HR lead­ers, should under­stand the strengths and weak­ness­es of their employees—as well as their own. As an exam­ple, Druck­en­miller cit­ed a client she once worked with: a self-described “bull­dog,” who was gun­ning for the sta­tus of being her company’s first female vice pres­i­dent. While she was speed­ing toward that goal, on an inter­per­son­al lev­el, “she was leav­ing every­one in the dust and had no idea of how she was being per­ceived,” said Druck­en­miller, who, as part of her coach­ing ser­vices, con­duct­ed exten­sive inter­views of the peo­ple her client managed.

Con­sis­tent themes emerged from those con­ver­sa­tions: The client only looked out for her­self, she wasn’t a good lis­ten­er and she didn’t seem to val­ue employ­ee input, for instance. While the client ini­tial­ly rebuffed those claims, Drunk­emiller said she even­tu­al­ly soft­ened to those per­cep­tions and they worked togeth­er to iden­ti­fy poten­tial blind spots she may con­tin­ue to strug­gle with; the woman now keeps a list of reminders handy to help guide her inter­ac­tions, Druck­en­miller said.

On a broad­er lev­el, orga­ni­za­tions can under­take strengths assess­ments to help their employ­ees and man­agers bet­ter under­stand one anoth­er and devel­op strengths-based lead­er­ship training.


Psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly safe envi­ron­ments val­ue curios­i­ty over judge­ment, Druck­en­miller said.

For instance, if a man­ag­er notices one employ­ee responds to high-pres­sure envi­ron­ments with hos­til­i­ty, he or she should con­sid­er the context—such as that this per­son may have been raised in an envi­ron­ment with strict demands.

“Nobody came out of child­hood unscathed, so maybe we can all have more com­pas­sion,” she said. “Dif­fi­cult peo­ple are peo­ple who don’t feel safe, and some­times all they need is just for some­one to acknowl­edge that they’re doing some­thing right.”

Man­agers and HR lead­ers should ask ques­tions, lis­ten attentively—using “door open­ers” like “Tell me more” and “Let me see if I got that right”—and respond with empathy.


Lone­li­ness con­tributes to ear­ly death more than alco­hol abuse, obe­si­ty and air pol­lu­tion, Druck­en­miller said—and the work­place is rife with it.

Man­agers and HR pro­fes­sion­als can play a key role in com­bat­ting lone­li­ness. Man­date device-free meet­ings, Druck­en­miller sug­gest­ed, as stud­ies have shown that the mere pres­ence of cell phones in a room sti­fles inter­per­son­al con­nect­ed­ness and trust. “Unless you’re clos­ing the hole in the ozone lay­er or cur­ing can­cer, you can wait an hour,” she said. “Take your Apple watch off.”

Sur­vey team mem­bers about their inter­ests and orga­nize out-of-office excur­sions that peo­ple would actu­al­ly want to go to, she added. “Con­nec­tion and time togeth­er build trust, and trust is the foun­da­tion of psy­cho­log­i­cal safe­ty,” Druck­en­miller said.

Man­age­ment style can also enhance con­nec­tions. If a man­ag­er focus­es on an employee’s strengths, there’s only a 1% chance he or she will active­ly dis­en­gage from work; if the man­ag­er focus­es on a person’s weak­ness, there’s a 22% chance he or she will active­ly disengage—a num­ber that jumps to 40% when the man­ag­er ignores the employ­ee altogether.

“The extent to which some­one feels val­ued, appre­ci­at­ed and seen affects how they engage with peo­ple and it affects their health,” she said.

By Jen Colletta
Orig­i­nal­ly post­ed on hrexecutive.com

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