The environment in which companies operate is subject to a constantly high level of dynamism. Not only in the area of (system) safety, but also in daily competition, companies are forced to reinvent themselves again and again. They must adapt to volatility, deal with uncertainty, successfully manage omnipresent complexity and make quick decisions in situations of ambiguity (VUCA) in order to successfully hold their own against their competitors.
Employees at all levels are confronted with the same challenges when performing their tasks. In most cases, they are no longer just a cog in the system, exercising a specific, well-defined task at a predefined pace, but are confronted with dynamic situations and actively contribute to the continuous improvement of the system – be it in the area of innovation or safety/risk management. Employees are therefore no longer just resources performing a clearly defined task, but an important source of information within a company, which is the prerequisite for continuous learning and further development of the organization.
In order to be able to make this contribution, the basis of a high level of psychological safety must be in place.
The psychologically unsafe, toxic work environment
In a toxic work environment, employees cannot express themselves openly for fear of negative consequences and withhold information. The work climate is characterized by mistrust. Whenever possible, they try to sweep mistakes under the carpet to avoid exposure. Knowledge is seen as power and not shared with colleagues. Managers no longer hear about what is going on in the company. The system falls silent and merely “functions,” although in retrospect there is no longer any question of functioning. There is a high risk that the company will slip unnoticed into a crisis. The lack of knowledge transfer nips the necessary further development of the company in the bud.
The psychologically safe working environment
A psychologically safe work environment is characterized by personal respect and appreciation. Employees feel safe and motivated to actively contribute and share information without fear of negative consequences, whether in the form of ideas or reports of problems/mistakes. There is positive collaboration and teams excel. The company has motivated and inspired employees who trust their colleagues and are actively involved in the further development of the organization. The innovation potential of the organization can be fully exploited. Conflicts within teams are used positively and seen as an enriching opportunity to learn from different perspectives and to move forward.
A study conducted at Google identified five key factors for successful teams. These are (1) psychological safety, (2) clear roles and responsibilities within the team, (3) reliable colleagues, (4) personally meaningful work and (5) the conviction to make an impact. Psychological safety emerged by far as the most important element, which formed the basis for the other four key factors.
The benefits of high psychological safety
The benefits of high psychological safety are many and can be felt at all levels within an organization. They include:
- Fulfillment at work and, as a result, a high level of employee loyalty to the employer
- Proven significantly better team performance
- Constructive use of conflicts with the aim of improvement
- Improved information flow within the company, which forms the basis for a learning organization
- A positive and inspiring corporate culture, which enables a pronounced risk and safety culture.
- Improved resilience of the company
- Increased innovation potential of the company
If you look at the above list – which is still far from complete – no company can really afford not to put psychological safety high on its agenda. A toxic work environment creates immense damage in the form of daily inefficiency, high staff turnover, missed innovation, and even the demise of companies due to a crisis or loss of competitiveness. Improving psychological safety can make all the difference.
 Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity
 Psychological safety is generally referred to as a work atmosphere in which people can express themselves and be themselves. More specifically, it can be said that employees who experience psychological safety at work feel encouraged to express concerns and make mistakes.