OPINION23 November 2020

Better safe than sorry

Opinion UK

Research needs minds that can expand without fear of judgement. James Vaughan-Smith writes about the value of psychological safety in the workplace.

When you search the phrase ‘opposite of toxic’, you get the word ‘safe’. ‘Toxic environment’ is a phrase often heard when people talk about a bad work experience. But you don’t often hear people talk about working in a ‘safe environment’ when they talk about a good work experience. Instead the positivity is often about pay, holiday or benefits.

Now you might be thinking, ‘What do you mean by safe?’

Feeling safe at work is making sure that people feel they won’t be harmed or hurt, emotionally, physically, but most importantly, psychologically, while at work. And once you think about this, it’s easy to see why psychological safety at work is more valuable and inspiring than material rewards.

Why is feeling safe at work important? Isn’t work all about results?

Work is about results, but looking after your colleagues will help you get results.

For people to feel safe at work they must feel heard, respected, empowered and like they’re part of a good thing. These things drive a business as much as salary to revenue ratios and anything else you can analyse on a spreadsheet. Being safe at work gives people space and comfort to be creative without the fear of ridicule. If you promote that any idea is a seen as a good idea, your people are more likely to suggest ideas. This approach promotes entrepreneurialism and can take your business to places you didn’t know it could go.

Researchers are all astute professionals. Of course, you get the details right and do due methodological diligence. But this isn’t enough. Research needs minds that expand and go to places previously unthought of.

This means research needs young people who think ‘outside of the box’ and can voice their opinions without fear of judgement. Such people open new doors, and their fresh ideas help flatten hierarchies. Young people get experience. Experienced people stay ‘down with the kids’. Everyone wins. This mix means you make the most of new ideas and prevent great thinking from being left on post-it notes, or even worse, trapped in people’s minds, never to see daylight due to an ‘unsafe workplace’.

How do you create a safe workplace?

Being safe is a feeling, not an instruction. This means people must feel like they can meaningfully take risks, be creative and expand horizons. Supplying structured and engaging wellbeing programmes that give colleagues a safety cushion are part of this. But encouragement is also a major part.

Encouragement isn’t just saying ‘good job!’. Encouragement is giving opportunities. Opportunity doesn’t mean just doing things like giving young colleagues chances to present to clients – it also means giving people the chance to do different things – like an operations director doing qualitative research. Or providing opportunities on pro-bono projects in adjacent fields like design or analytics.

These are all ways of building confidence and tangibly proving to people they’re heard, valued and trusted to contribute to a business.

It may seem scary to ‘unleash’ people into new areas, but by working closely with people, mentoring them and encouraging them to fail in a safe space, they’ll eventually be as capable (if not more capable!) as anyone else.

Nelson Mandela’s saying ‘I never lose. I either win or learn’ couldn’t be truer than in the context of workplace safety. Yes, you can’t just put people into situations they’re uncomfortable with. However, allowing people to fail and learn in a work environment they trust and feel safe in gives them confidence to build on.

Need some proof about safety’s value? Google it….

Google proved the value of workplace safety with a two-year survey of 200+ interviews with their employees, looking at over 250 attributes of 180+ active Google teams. By far and away, the highest performing dynamic for high performing teams was psychological safety: ‘Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?’.

If it’s good enough for Google, it’s good enough for us.

James Vaughan-Smith is operations director at Northstar Research

1 Comment

5 months ago

Brilliant article!

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