Sep 27, 2023

Many organisations understand the power of having cultures that foster trust, communication, and collaboration but do not yet have the tools they need to make that vision a reality. When individuals feel comfortable taking risks, expressing ideas and concerns, asking questions, and admitting mistakes without fear of negative consequences, that is considered a psychologically safe environment, a term originated by author and Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson.

Given all of the changes in the workplace over the last few years, it has become increasingly important to the success of organisations to create cultures that prioritise psychological safety.

Wiley Workplace Intelligence set out to understand more about psychological safety in the workplace today. Are organisations creating psychologically safe environments or is there more work to do? And further, how does one’s level within an organisation influence their level of psychological safety?

We surveyed 2,000 people using the framework of questions Edmonson outlined in her study on psychological safety and the results were intriguing.

Higher Levels Report Mistakes “Held Against Them” at Higher Numbers

Survey respondents in more senior positions (supervisor, director, and executive) reported feeling that mistakes on their team “were held against them” at higher levels than individual contributors and managers.

Being held accountable for a team’s performance is a normal part of a leadership role. However, this question was based on Edmonson’s criteria for a psychologically safe environment, assessing whether respondents experience feelings of being blamed or having mistakes held against them when they are made.

Having natural and expected accountability in a leadership role, vs. feeling as though mistakes are held against them or they are blamed for mistakes is the difference between a psychologically healthy and unhealthy work environment.

If I Make a Mistake on My Team, It’s Rarely Held Against Me
Disagree/Strongly Disagree: 42% Supervisor
Disagree/Strongly Disagree: 40% Director, Executive

Middle Levels Are More Comfortable with Discomfort

Interestingly, individual contributors and executives both felt less comfortable bringing up problems and tough issues than their middle-level counterparts. Individual contributors specifically were 8-12 percentage points lower than other roles indicating discomfort around bringing up tough issues at work.

The majority of respondents shared that they largely do feel that they are able to bring up tough issues, which is good for team cohesion and communication. However, the lower numbers of individual contributors that report comfort in this area does point to the fact that there is work to do in going further to create environments where people at all levels feel comfortable having difficult conversations. This can include facilitated learning experiences that encourage building trust, which is the foundation of all great teamwork, and can make tough conversations less intimidating.

Members of My Team Are Able to Bring Up Tough Issues
Agree/Strongly Agree
82% of Individual Contributors Agree
89% of All Respondents Agree

Risk-Taking Is Risky for Individual Contributors

There is a significant difference between how safe individual contributors and executives felt taking risks in their organisations. It is important to work towards creating cultures that value innovation at every level, regardless of their role. While it is a departure from more traditional (and increasingly outdated) corporate models, many organisations are coming around to the idea that innovation happens at every level, and it takes just one great idea to inspire something great – even if it is risky.

I Feel Safe to Take a Risk in My Organization Agree/Strongly Disagree
Individual Contributor 53% Least
Executive 76% Most

Managers Less Concerned with Deliberate Undermining than Counterparts

Interestingly, the number of people who believe that a team member would deliberately act in a way that undermines their efforts corresponded with directors and executives similarly, with supervisors reporting the lowest levels of agreement in this area.

Undermining is characteristic of a toxic culture and is a sign that work needs to be done to increase trust, communication, and cohesion.

No One on My Team Would Deliberately Undermine Me
68% of Supervisors Agree
73% of Overall Respondents Agree

The Higher the Level, the More Valued They Feel

A whopping 89% of executives reported that they agree or strongly agree that their unique skills and talents are valued on their teams compared to 82% of individual contributors.

While the exact reason for this difference is not clear, one can assume that positive reinforcement by way of career progression or financial compensation offers individuals affirmation that they are performing well which can, presumably, make people feel increasingly valued in their organisation.

Taking time to recognise and appreciate your people for their contributions, at all levels and not only through promotions and financial gains, will add value in spades. Feeling valued at work has a strong correlation with a sense of belonging and productivity. Taking time to know and understand how your people like to receive recognition, and acting on it, is a sign of a great leader and healthy culture.

My Unique Skills and Talents Are Valued
86% of Respondents Agree

Executives Report Highest Levels of Psychological Safety

Based on this data, it’s not surprising that executives experience the highest level of psychological safety with 93% reporting that they feel mostly or completely psychologically safe at work. It’s important for a number of reasons, including well-being, retention, and results, that organisations work towards creating psychologically safe environments for everyone, not just those at the top.

Current Levels of Psychological Safety at Work I feel completely psychologically safe
42% Manager
46% Individual Contributor
46% Supervisor
49% Director
57% Executive

The Psychological Safety Gap

There is a discrepancy between the reported levels of psychological safety between supervisors, directors, executives individual contributors and managers which speaks to a need for organisations to do more work to ensure that there is a foundation of trust at every level. Individual contributors and managers specifically report lower levels of psychological safety and feel less safe speaking up and less valued for their contributions which could not only impact their engagement and wellbeing, but your results and success long-term as an organisation.

How Leaders Can Foster a Psychologically Safe Workplace

Our respondents were asked what qualities they seek in a leader, and their answers provide actionable insight into what people are wanting from their leaders today. ‘Communicates effectively’ topped the list with 33% of respondents ranking it first. ‘Creates a safe place for sharing different perspectives’ came in second with 16%.

It’s clear that there is a need for more skills in the areas of communication and relationship building in order to increase psychological safety across all levels of an organisation. While technical skills are often easily accessed, it can be harder to know where to start building those more “soft” skills that make a huge impact on the well-being of organisational culture.

Top 5 Most Important Qualities in a Leader
33% Communicates effectively
16% Creates a safe place for sharing different perspectives
14% Demonstrates professionalism
13% Builds effective relationships
13% Communicates a clear vision of the future

Create Psychological Safety with the Help of Facilitated Learning Experiences

Everything DiSC® and The Five Behaviors® help build the skills that create the qualities people look for in a great leader, including building effective relationships and better communication. When individuals have the skills to encourage understanding, empathy, trust, and teamwork, the entire organisation benefits.

Wiley assessment brands do this by creating the basis for psychological safety at work and giving organisations the tools they need to understand more about themselves and others, creating a foundation of trust that inspires psychological safety.