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Ang Brennan


Head of Learning and Talent

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How to help your managers create psychologically safe workplaces 

Ang Brennan, Head of Learning and Talent at Insights, explains how, by upskilling managers, we can create psychologically safe workplace environments that catalyse learning and innovation.
white dog and gray cat hugging each other on grass: Four steps to help your managers create a psychologically safe workplace 

During my time in people development, one of the things I’ve enjoyed most has been helping managers uncover and grow their unique talents. 

The best managers I’ve worked with have very much been themselves and played to their strengths. 

Importantly, they are also the ones who have strived to create a psychologically safe workplace. One where employees feel they can express themselves without fear of reprisal. 

Psychologically safe learning cultures

Psychological safety isn't just a desirable aspiration; it's a proven catalyst for innovation and the breeding ground for high-performing teams. In psychologically safe workspaces a culture of learning prevails, which is a critical component of employee engagement and retention.

Despite the widespread acknowledgment of the importance of fostering psychological safety in the workplace, the ability to do this remains an underrated management skill. 

Many managers mistakenly believe that good intentions and an 'open door policy' are sufficient to encourage employees to speak up. However, there are numerous reasons why an employee might refrain from sharing an idea or opinion. Including feeling like their input is not welcome, fear of retribution or worries about making expensive mistakes.

Given the importance of psychological safety, it's up to us as senior learning and HR professionals to help upskill managers, so that they can develop psychological safety in their teams. 

In psychologically safe workspaces a culture of learning prevails

Areas for improvement in psychological safety

Here are four things you can help your managers to work on to create psychologically safe workspaces:

1. Self-awareness

What we often don’t realise is how our behaviors are perceived in the workplace and the impact we have on others. 

This is where self-awareness comes into play. When we understand our own behavioural preferences and what drives them, we become aware of our triggers and reactions which can make them feel unsafe.

Now we have the power to mitigate them, as we are more likely to notice when others around us are impacted and adapt our own behaviours accordingly.

This ability is a massive skill for managers that benefits all facets of the organisation. A blend of internal and external training programs can provide vital tools to help managers better understand themselves and their teams. For example, Insights Discovery, which offers a unique approach to understanding personalities through the lens of colour.

2. The power of active listening

Listening and empowering are intertwined by a fundamental question: Do you trust others?

When we neglect to listen, we inadvertently signal that we don't value the perspectives of those around us, eroding the foundation of psychological safety.

Listening isn't just about hearing words; it's about adopting a mindset that prioritises understanding over authority. 

If your managers are stuck in the belief that management means having all the answers, your organisation will miss out on the wealth of insights teams have to offer. 

Challenge your managers’ assumptions about the intelligence and capabilities of team members. Even the smallest nugget of wisdom in what they say can spark brilliant ideas. 

Empowerment, though often seen as daunting, can be simplified by focusing on two key principles. 

Firstly, set clear expectations for outcomes while leaving the how-to up to your team members. Regular check-ins ensure accountability without micromanaging. 

Secondly, instead of inundating teams with advice, ask powerful coaching questions to guide their thinking. You don't need a vast arsenal of questions; a handful of well-crafted ones can work wonders. 

Challenge your managers’ assumptions about the intelligence and capabilities of team members

3. A learning culture that allows for mistakes

Mistakes aren't setbacks; they're steppingstones to a psychologically safe workplace. Managers often aspire to be sources of inspiration, yet the fear of falling short can loom large. 

True inspiration in business management isn't about flawless performances; people are most inspired by managers who encourage them to push past their fears and explore new horizons.

When giving feedback, it's easy to focus solely on what needs fixing. Instead, encourage your managers to prioritise motivating the individual to improve. They can start by highlighting what team members have done well; it's not only uplifting but also provides valuable learning opportunities. 

Approach criticism with empathy, recognising that behind every mistake is a person deserving of understanding.

Setting expectations is equally crucial. While aiming for perfection is commendable in repeatable tasks, it's essential to embrace a learning mindset when individuals are navigating unfamiliar territory. Managers should focus on the lessons learned and the resilience displayed in overcoming challenges. 

Ask powerful coaching questions to guide ... thinking

4. Prioritise consistency and kindness

Creating a psychologically safe workplace hinges on these two pillars. Managers who veer into unpredictable territory often find themselves grappling with disengaged teams. 

But why does unpredictability pose such a problem? Think of it like this: who wants to navigate a work environment where support feels like a game of chance? 

Let's face it: we're all human, prone to the occasional bad day. But the real challenge lies in preventing our personal struggles from casting a shadow over the entire team. The key is to extend the same consistency and kindness to ourselves as we do to others. 

You've probably come across the Harvard Business Review article "Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time." By conscientiously managing our own energy levels, we equip ourselves to show up consistently for those around us.

 If your managers find this a recurring struggle, they can delve into Tony Schwartz and Jean Gomes's invaluable book "The Way We're Working Isn't Working”. It's a roadmap to discovering what strategies best suit your needs.

By actively helping your managers to embrace these principles, as HR professionals you can play a part in cultivating a workplace where psychological safety thrives. 

This not only boosts individual and team wellbeing but also creates the fertile ground necessary for innovation, productivity and sustained success.

Did you enjoy this article? Check out: Rethinking learning culture: Is it enough for business-savvy L&D teams?

Author Profile Picture
Ang Brennan

Head of Learning and Talent

Read more from Ang Brennan

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