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20 ways for leaders to create psychological safety at work

Create psychological safety at work to build a high performing team

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Why it’s important to create psychological safety at work20 ways to create psychological safety at workHow to use Spill to create psychological safety in the workplaceCreating psychological safety at work is a long-term goal

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Quick summary:

  • Creating psychological safety at work means your team will feel able to express themselves without worrying about the consequences.
  • How you act as a leader has a significant impact on psychological safety in your team: to create psychological safety, embody the behaviours you want to see in your employees. 
  • Just one or two simple changes can have a ripple effect on your team’s psychological safety.
  • Take care, be consistent, and take your time — creating psychological safety in the workplace is a long-term goal.

Why it’s important to create psychological safety at work

A psychologically safe workplace is one where employees have the ability to speak up without fear, reprimand, or humiliation. Creating psychological safety at work means building an environment where employees feel able to share their ideas, no matter how ‘silly’ they think they are: in fact, they could be the game-changing ideas your company has been looking for.

There’s a common misconception that psychological safety is present in any reasonably healthy workplace (much like freedom from harassment or basic health and safety). But in fact, they’re rare. Without creating psychological safety at work, a team’s culture can become toxic, something that makes people 10 times more likely to quit their jobs (over compensation and benefits).

What role do leaders have in creating psychological safety at work?

Clearly, toxic work cultures have a significant effect on a team’s happiness and overall performance. But the authors of the book Leading with Heart, John Baird and Edward Sullivan, make an important point: toxicity breeds when managers stop having quality conversations with their team members.

It’s no longer enough for business leaders to only focus on employee performance: research exploring ‘quiet quitting’ — when employees stop going the extra mile at work — shows that it’s the relationship between employees and their managers that stops them from deciding to wind down entirely and quit.

So, what does this mean in terms of psychological safety in the workplace? Well, leaders need to take care of their team’s wellbeing: it’s about balancing the different needs of your team with getting results.And that means making them feel seen, heard, understood, and supported.

Psychologically safe teams are more in tune with each other, happier to take risks, come up with innovative ideas, and execute them quickly. Let’s find out how you, as a leader, can go about  creating psychological safety at work.

20 ways to create psychological safety at work

Creating psychological safety in the workplace means bringing your team together as one and creating an environment that sets everyone up for success. And it starts with you.

Your interactions with your team will determine whether they feel safe airing their opinions and concerns. Employees want to work with leaders who see themselves as part of the team and whom they trust to be transparent.

From our research, we found that much of the discussion around creating psychological safety at work is theoretical: it seems to be a tricky topic to translate from theory to practical. But, we’re willing to give it a go.

Edmonson’s work laid out four stages of psychological safety: feeling included, feeling safe to learn, feeling safe to contribute, and feeling safe to challenge the norm, so we’ve divided our ideas into these four sections.

💙 Create psychological safety at work by making your employees feel included

An inclusive workplace is one in which everyone feels accepted, respected, and acknowledged for their ideas and backgrounds.

1. Spruce up your job descriptions

Feeling included begins well before someone actually joins your team. Studies have shown that while men will apply for a job if they meet 60% of the qualifications, women will only apply if they meet 100% of them. So, rather than produce a checklist of skills that may immediately exclude the ideal candidate, focus on what your new hire will be expected to achieve a month, six months, and a year into the job.

2. Send round meeting agendas and discussion points early

Ever noticed it's often the same few people that dominate group discussions? If you’re consistently presenting problems on the spot, you’ll likely get the same few opinions each time. Research suggests that between 16-50% of people are introverts, meaning a large portion of your team needs time to process information before responding. So, let them: send discussion points, agendas, and even expectations before a meeting to give everyone a chance to prepare (and share) their thoughts.

3. Include mental health days in your sick leave policy 

Around 50% of long-term sick leave is due to stress, depression, and anxiety, while presenteeism (showing up at work but being unable to to perform effectively due to mental health) costs a company an average of £918 per employee each year. Time off isn’t just for physical health: let your team rest and recover their mind as well as their body. This is a good opportunity to lead by example, too. If you take time off for a mental health day, your team will feel safe to do the same.

4. Check your bathrooms

If your team is office- or hybrid-based, take two seconds to check your bathrooms. This is a quick one: if you can afford a social budget, you can afford Tampax. 

5. Offer flexible religious holidays

Thanks to the shift towards hybrid and remote working, flexibility at work is more important now than ever before. Flexible hours are a huge help for anyone who likes to structure their day away from the 9-5 (so, all of us then?), but what about the great British bank holiday? Half of the bank holidays in the UK are tied to Christian religious festivals. Companies like Eve Sleep, Spotify, and Deloitte now offer flexible public holiday dates and it’s worth considering: if your employees want to use those days elsewhere in the year (for a holiday, for their own religion, because they’re not believers, the why doesn’t matter), they’ll appreciate being free to do so. 

🤓 Create psychological safety at work by helping employees feel safe to learn

In a workplace that’s safe to learn, everyone will feel like they can take risks, make mistakes, and learn from failure.

6. Celebrate failure

Hands up if you hold regular retros on your team’s work? Hands up again if you dedicate time to acknowledge all the things that went wonderfully well? Yup, we thought so. Praise is super important when it comes to psychological safety (more on that later) but if you want to create learner safety, celebrate the mistakes as well. Whether it's 15 minutes in your retro, a dedicated Slack channel, or even a whole standalone meeting, encourage your team to talk about the things that didn’t go to plan and share their learnings as a result. And then reward them for it (beer, wine, cheese, champagne, wild applause, and parties all seem to be popular ideas).

7. Bring everyone along

One of Spill’s company values, this is our way of encouraging everyone to contribute to company decisions. In our most recent planning phase, we tried something new across the company: over the course of a week, we identified a lot of questions that needed answering before we could proceed. So, different people were tasked with answering a question depending on their expertise. And it turned into quite A Big Thing. Everyone owned their question and thoroughly researched it before writing their findings up in long Notion docs. Everyone in the company was encouraged to read every research page (all 15 of them) and comment on them if they wanted, and by the end of a week (alright, 10 days), we had a clearer understanding of where to devote our time. But this is just one example: Loom and Claap videos are another great way to make sure people asynchronously understand the thinking behind a decision and we also record/make notes on every team discussion, which are then shared publicly. 

8. Invite questions

Here at Spill, we have a bi-weekly Townhall meeting. And to enter that meeting, every single member of staff has to go via a Typeform that gives the opportunity to submit a question. It’s not compulsory and questions can be anonymous: the point is, there’s a regular opportunity for everyone to ask our founder a question (that ranges from the regularity of socials to our runway), and everyone trusts that he will answer every submitted question.

9. Make learning and development part of your team’s regular work

It’s all very well offering a £1,000 annual learning and development budget, but in daily business making use of this money often gets sidelined…indefinitely. Instead, think about how you can make learning part of your team’s weekly schedule. Perhaps everyone gets an hour a week to read up on something new in their field. Maybe they could present their findings at a lunch and learn. Having a mentor could become a company-wide KPI, and for paid courses, ask your network and managers for recommendations specific to your company’s roles and share them round the team.

10. Say ‘I don’t know’

We’re betting you get asked a lot of questions everyday and chances are, you answer all of them (even if you’re not entirely sure) because you’re a leader that wants to support your team. Great! But, have you ever considered saying ‘I don’t know’? For three little words, they can have a huge impact on your employees: as well as showing you’re open, it shatters the illusion of perfectionism, and it can lead to new, collaborative learning opportunities, too. Plus, it’s incredibly liberating.

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💡 Create psychological safety at work by helping employees feel safe to contribute

For teams that have contributor safety, everyone trusts that their ideas will be considered and accepted.

11. Praise people publicly

At Spill, we have a #shoutouts channel on Slack where anyone and everyone can publicly praise another member of the team. What’s more, everyone uses it and praise gets passed up just as much as down the chain of command. We also take it a step further and use Spill’s Wall of Praise feature: each week, we give unconditional praise to a randomly selected member of the team. Totally unrelated to performance at work, it’s a chance to value individual personalities rather than recognise over-working.

12. Arrange a hackathon

Not just for developers, hackathons are a great way to bring together different skills, abilities, and experience levels from across your company to solve a genuine business challenge. Plan a new feature, organise a new workstream, or draft a new email: the outcome is only part of the fun.  

13. Send round a wellbeing survey (and report back on it)

Contributor safety isn’t just important for daily business: your team is your living, breathing company culture and employee wellbeing deserves wider input, too. Create an employee wellbeing survey and send it to your team. From ways of working and the number of socials, to work-life balance and feedback frameworks, it’s an invaluable opportunity to get a read on everyone’s headspace. Remember to report back and action your findings.

14. Ask your teams to create a team contract

A great activity to do with existing and new teams alike, a team contract is an opportunity for your team to sit down and decide on their team norms and ways of working. Give teams a couple of hours to prep and sign their charters, and get them to present back at the end of the day. Team contracts act as a set of guidelines for that team: preferences on communication, feedback, socialising, and workstreams, as well as a commitment to their behaviours, like active listening, respecting one another, checking in, sharing positive news, or even their coffee order. It makes for a fun team bonding activity and promotes psychological safety on an individual team basis. Feeling safe to contribute within a smaller team is a good starting point for feeling safe in the wider company. 

15. (Really) listen

How many times have you been distracted by an email, a Slack notification, or your phone during a meeting? We get it, you’re busy and have a lot going on. But, these seemingly small acts of disengagement tell your team that you’re not paying attention or value their thoughts. And so, they’ll shut down. And that’s when you’ll lose their valuable contributions. Plus, other members of your team will likely follow your lead and pretty soon, no one will be listening. So, make a conscious effort to actively listen and engage with what people are saying: ask questions and reframe their words to show you truly understand, and put the technology aside. And if you don’t have time at the exact moment someone wants to talk to you, schedule time for them there and then.

🥊 Create psychological safety at work by helping employees feel safe to challenge the norm

In a team that’s comfortable with challenging, everyone is happy to question assumptions and offer alternative viewpoints.

16. Build critique into every work cycle

‘Retros’ are a popular way to reflect on a project or work cycle and comment on what went well, what went wrong, and hopefully, what could have been done differently. But there are other ways, too. Pre-mortems help teams imagine their project has failed (before its started) to help them mitigate and plan for potential risks, while half-way retros act as a useful point of reflection to take stock: how’s progress looking, does the work still make sense, is everyone aligned? Alternatively, you could take a leaf out of Pixar’s book and their ‘Braintrust’: a group of people get together from different departments to watch an early cut of an upcoming film over lunch with pizza. They discuss its merits and weaknesses, but with the freedom of knowing the team actually making the film don’t need to action any of the feedback: it’s purely a way to encourage challenging behaviour.

17. Celebrate the challengers

As a founder, CEO, or any leading decision-maker, work is often more than the daily 9-5. And that means that when someone challenges your company’s norm or voices their opinion, it can often feel personal. In that moment, how you respond is really important: chances are, the rest of your team are watching to see what happens and if there’s a negative outcome, you’ll lose their trust in challenger safety. So instead, celebrate the challengers! Acknowledge their difficult truths, be honest about how it makes you feel, and invite further discussion.

18. Ask someone else to lead the meeting (and mind where you sit)

Whether you’re the founder, CEO, or another senior leader, your very presence can stop the flow of creative ideas. Not ideal when encouraging useful ideas is quite literally your job. So, change the power dynamic. By asking someone else to lead the meeting, you’re redistributing power and it gives you the opportunity to take in the content and interaction during the meeting. Mind where you sit, too: don’t sit at the head of the table. It’s a ritual that reflects power structure. Instead, mix it up so people change seats every time to show you’re not bothered by title, position, or authority.

19. Give someone the ‘challenger hat’

During a meeting, nominate a person to play devil’s advocate and mine for constructive debate. Not only will this challenge the status quo, but it will help your team get used to a) being challenged and b) being the challenger. The first few times might feel a little strange, but that’s only because it’s new. Make sure your team knows it's a safe space and keep the pressure off: some people might find this harder than others.

20. Lead by example

Undoubtedly the most important thing you can do. A survey by McKinsey found that a workplace conducive to psychological safety starts at the very top. Simply put, by being an inclusive leader, you’ll promote positive leadership behaviours throughout the organisation. On top of that, their results found that the highest likelihood of psychological safety occurs when a leader creates a positive team environment (i.e. stages one to three of psychological safety) and then challenges the team. Without the positive team environment as a foundation, challenging leadership behaviours had no significant effect on the team’s psychological safety.

Spill gives your team access to highly quality therapy, helping you create a working environment that's safe, inclusive, and effective.

Learn more about Spill

How to use Spill to create psychological safety at work

Another survey by McKinsey, this time exploring the behavioural health of teams (defined in this case as mental health and substance abuse disorders), found that promoting mental health — and therefore combating the stigma associated with seeking help — is essential to creating psychological safety at work.

Since the pandemic, 81% of workplaces have stepped up their focus on mental health: a gratifying number given that this year, 55% of employees will either struggle with a mental health condition or feel unmotivated, flat, burned out, anxious, or generally low.

Mental health support at work can include anything from resources (i.e. articles, videos, FAQs) about mental health to helplines and access to therapy. 

And that’s where Spill comes in. 

A Slack or MS Teams integration, Spill gives anyone and everyone in your company really good therapy that’s free at the point of access. From one-off sessions to longer courses, or even message-based advice (with one of our highly-experienced therapists), Spill makes therapy accessible to anyone who needs or wants a bit of extra support. Here’s how you can use Spill to create psychological safety in your workplace:

💙 Spill lets you proactively support your team

According to Deloitte, screening programmes (which try to spot anyone at risk of slipping into a period of poor mental health) have the highest return on investment because they provide targeted support at an early stage and prevent the problem from escalating. Spill Safety Net is our mental health screening programme for your team. Companies that use this feature see twice as many people accessing therapy and you could save around £2,640 for every employee who gets help sooner thanks to reduced sick days, lower levels of presenteeism, and fewer people quitting. Spill Safety Net is also a useful way to loosely monitor psychological safety on your team: if your employees are happy to share their feelings with the company, chances are they’re feeling pretty safe.

Spill Safety Net invites your team to share how they're feeling each week

🥰 Spill lets you share unconditional praise

We’ve talked about the importance of praise (unconditional and otherwise) in psychological safety, and Spill’s much-loved Wall of Praise feature is just one way you can easily do that. Each week, Spill will message everyone in the company asking them to share their thoughts on why someone on the team is great. The next day, that person will receive an influx of (anonymous) positive vibes. It’s a truly lovely feature that helps people feel valued for who they are, rather than just the work they do.

Spill's Wall of Praise feature invites the whole team to share their unconditional praise with a colleague

🗣️ Spill lets you book therapy whenever it's needed

Did you know that only 41% of people who get referred for NHS therapy actually get a course? Or that EAPs and private health insurers turn away people with pre-existing mental health conditions? With Spill, no employee is turned away and employees can start Spill therapy the very next day. By making therapy accessible, Spill helps your employees feel comfortable seeking help and trusting that they’ll get it, which contributes to their psychological safety. Plus, they’ll feel valued, cared for, and supported by the company.

Therapy with Spill is available whenever you or your team needs it

🧠 Spill lets your team develop

Therapy with Spill gives your team (and you!) a safe place to explore their thoughts, feelings, or concerns. It's an opportunity to develop self-awareness, emotional resilience, and better communication skills, which in turn can help people set better boundaries, be open about their needs, and communicate effectively, ultimately leading to a psychologically safe workplace where your team feels heard and understood. Spill offers therapy in three different ways: as a one-off session, as a course of sessions, or via our message-based Ask a Therapist feature, and is available in 10 languages covering 60+ different specialisms.

Your team can choose to book a one-off therapy session, start a course of therapy, or message a therapist

🤫 Spill is confidential

A psychologically safe environment is one that encourages people to speak up without fear. We take confidentiality very seriously at Spill: all therapy sessions are confidential, video therapy sessions are end-to-end encrypted, and all messages to and from therapists can only be viewed by the user receiving them. Neither Spill nor your company will be able access the content of any video therapy sessions. Your employees will have a totally secure and safe space to seek help and be vulnerable without fear of judgement or disclosure.

Spill is fully secure and all therapy sessions are confidential.

Creating psychological safety at work is a long-term goal

We’ve listed a tonne of stuff here but there’s no pressure to do them all: just one simple change can positively impact your team, and you’ll see it ripple throughout the company. Creating psychological safety is a long-term goal and will form a key part of your business strategy. So, take care, be consistent, and take your time: it will be well worth it.

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