We know that when our staff feel truly part of something, great things happen.

Just ask one of Europe’s most successful broadcasters, Sky. Its UK Head of Inclusion, Catherine Garrod, has said that she bases her diversity and inclusion work on real employee feedback.

For Sky, what’s become apparent is that the meaning of inclusion deeply embraces ‘being yourself’. And for Sky that means creating the conditions of psychological safety – because when employees feel psychologically safe, they also feel empowered to be themselves.

Creating positive work environments: Avoiding ‘fight or flight’ response

It turns out that when firms allow employees to be themselves at work, there are important implications. As HR leaders, we know that in work environments where people feel comfortable and engaged, teams take more risks, speak out more and solve problems better.

What’s more, an absence of that psychological safety – where there is a risk of being embarrassed or criticised – means a fight or flight stress response takes over. This hijacks higher brain functions and team members get swamped by negative emotions, resulting in impaired decision making and diminished reasoning capability.

Employees who don’t feel psychologically safe may also perceive any demands placed on them as more than just challenges, but as threats to them personally. Stressed employees may focus on the negative risks of sharing ideas, of trying anything different or pointing out any problems – worried they might be ostracised if they speak out and fearing any negative repercussions.

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Clearly, having the sure knowledge that you are safe to take risks and to speak your mind in the workplace without undue fear of the consequences is essential to high performance and engagement. A positive mental and emotional state elicits trust, inclusion, belonging, curiosity, confidence and inspiration – enabling employees to be more motivated and feel comfortable ‘being themselves’.

Research suggests that work environments where people feel able to take interpersonal risks have teams that perform better, but are also more creative and more likely to solve problems effectively.

For example, a 2016 Google study found that the better performing teams were not those with the more capable or talented members, but those which excelled at working together. And the best predictor of team performance was the team’s psychological safety profile.

Showing vulnerability helps

Acknowledging that highly engaged teams drive better business results, how do we go about creating those psychologically safe spaces at work? The key is enabling people to speak honestly via a conversational framework that fosters a climate of trust.

At Sky UK, Catherine and team have worked very hard to build empathy amongst teams and colleagues in order to make sure people respect one another’s views. Sky opened up the conversation with employees about assumptions that have been made about them, for instance, finding that psychological safety can benefit diversity (see here).

And as we all know, real change comes from the top. It’s important for leaders to explicitly model openness and vulnerability, in order to build trust in relationships and demonstrate the value to all tiers of the organisation.

An overbearing or obnoxious leader that discourages disagreement or has to have the last say tends to make groups feel unsafe. Managers showing vulnerability and who share personal stories about themselves, as well as encouraging team members to vocialise their own, can really help here.

Another feature of psychological safety is accepting that conflict and disagreement need not be threatening. Leaders can improve their understanding of their team culture and engagement profile through encouraging healthy debate, uncovering information about issues that would otherwise get stuck on its way to the top.

Celebrating risk-taking and being open to failure also works to make workplaces safer. Some failures can help us learn and avoid future mistakes. Leading global consumer goods giant P&G is known for its ‘Heroic Failure Award’ for employees who score notable ‘fails’ – which are then analysed to find a better way to address the original problem.

Let’s use tech to help

Technology has a role here. Specifically, you should be using it to collect employee feedback, analyse it, and so uncover insights that can help you ensure they have an ongoing understanding of team culture and engagement. A work environment need not be especially toxic for these issues to arise – regular ‘pulse checks’ of employee sentiment can pin-point even very subtle trouble spots. With this information, you can create a plan of action, which is crucial to creating a safer environment.

When managers lay the groundwork for psychological safety and model the behaviours needed for its success, they will ultimately drive engagement across the business. And as a direct result, there will be more sharing of ideas, creative problem solving, and innovative solutions. Plus, it will avoid the situation where a highly-valued team member suddenly gives notice and leaves, leaving your leadership teams baffled as to why this has occurred.

Let’s make sure people respect each other’s views and feel empowered to speak out and point out the problems in our processes that may be holding us back without our knowing.

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