A key to success in the modern workplace is psychological safety. As time goes on, jobs that can be automated are being automated, leading to more roles that require knowledge, information and ideas over physicality. To succeed in this environment workplaces need to be innovative and agile; and to do this, employees need to be free and safe to bring their thinking and challenging selves to work.

On the flip side of this, we are seeing an increase in bullying behaviours in the workplace. Research indicates that approximately 10% of employees will experience bullying in a 6 month period, while 40% will have experienced it within their working lifetime. This will vary depending on a range of factors including industry where you work and the individual workplace.

What this means is that within our workplaces, we have employees who use bullying and abrasive behaviours. Unfortunately, those individuals’ behaviours are the kryptonite to psychological safety because they generate fear. This places your workplace success at serious risk.

Psychological safety allows us to share and collaborate

Amy Edmondson is a leader in workplace psychological safety research. She defines psychological safety as the following:

  • The belief that the work environment is safe for interpersonal risk taking.
  • The experience of being able to speak up with relevant ideas, questions, or concerns.
  • Speaking up occurs instead, facilitating the open and authentic communication that shines the light on problems, mistakes, and opportunities for improvement and increases the sharing of knowledge and ideas.
  • Is present when colleagues trust and respect each other and feel able – even obligated – to be candid.

She advises that better and strong teams will make more mistakes than less strong teams. This is not because they are poor performers, but as a direct result of being able openly talk about their mistakes. Comparatively, those in less strong teams will hide their mistakes to keep themselves safe.

A key characteristics of those workplaces that don’t have psychological safety is a culture of fear. We all feel fear of embarrassment, humiliation and ridicule. We fear perceptions of personal incompetence. As a result, we fear losing our jobs and our professional lives.

That fear physically impacts on our brain, closing us off from important activities of learning and cooperation at work reducing the likelihood of success.

Bullying and abrasive behaviour is kryptonite to psychological safety

Just as kryptonite is the bane to certain superheroes, workplace bullying and abrasive behaviours is the bane to psychological safety.

As we know, there are many behaviours that can be considered part of a bullying repertoire. Safe Work Australia lists some of these as abusive language or comments, aggressive and intimidating conduct, belittling or humiliating comments, unjustified criticism, withholding vital information for effective work performance, setting unreasonable timelines, etc. In our mind, either consciously or not, these behaviours place us in a state of fear. Our professional lives are put at stake if we speak up. Our perceived competence is threatened if not our livelihoods.

Edmondson’s research indicates that in such circumstances of fear, employees would rather stay silent, accepting that those in power know best, even when this may not be the case. They stay silent, even when they believe what they have to say could be important for the organisation, the client, or themselves. Fearful employees will find work-arounds that avoid raising issues with bullying or abrasive leaders, leaving management blind to risks that occur within the organisation and those risks unmanaged. In worst case scenarios, employees have been known to fabricate evidence and lie rather than risk the consequences to themselves.

Employees will help create an illusion that goals are being achieved in a company. At the same time, problems that can bring down a organisation bubble under the surface until an inevitable fall.

It starts with leadership

For organisations to succeed, employers are key to success. Psychological safety starts with leadership. Leaders set the safety culture. They set the scene to make open and candid conversations possible. For mistakes to be celebrated, not as signed of failure, but as important data that can be learned from to help refine and pivot their business in an age that requires agility and flexibility.

The employees you have on the ground have volumes of knowledge. They can help you uncover blind spots, be innovative and be successful.

Why wouldn’t you want that for your workplace?