4 practical tips for creating psychological safety at work

A safe workplace promotes how people feel and how creative they are. People dare and can say and do what they want without being punished for it. Creating such a safe working environment is more than checking off a list. Check out our 4 practical tips.

Psychological safety at work

Transgressive behaviour has been all over the news lately. Whether it’s a football club, a university, a tweeting CEO, ministry or TV programme, different cases of unwanted behaviour displayed in the workplace are, thankfully, being exposed more often. But what can you do as an organisation to prevent this and cultivate an environment that utilises people’s talents and encourages insights from others?

"One of the key elements is identifying certain routines and behaviours that need to be reinforced or abandoned to create a safe workplace."

A safe working environment: 4 practical tips to create and monitor psychological safety

1. Psychological safety starts with people

Organisations are places where people come together to build great things. The collective goal is to create something, change the world or improve it. Think of companies that have a clear and unique mission and vision on how to improve the world. There are probably a few of these companies or brands that you would like to work for. 

Something Human Insight has researched a lot in recent years, is the quality of interaction between groups of people. In other words: how good are the interactions between teams working on something? 

What we saw is that, through assessment, we can accurately map out the individual differences in thinking styles, as well as how people deal with managing complex issues. But in our interactions with different groups of people, we noticed that something was still missing which affected the quality of interaction: psychological safety. 

What we mean by this, is the extent to which a safe environment is created where individuals can give their opinions and/or feedback to others without fear of being reprimanded.

4 elements of a safe workplace

Four elements play an important part in creating psychological safety. Some form of (1) engagement, being part of the conversation, (2) an environment where mistakes are allowed and seen as part of the learning process, (3) people can and are allowed to make contributions within a team discussion based on their own knowledge and (4) critical voices that challenge the status quo are encouraged to highlight the problem from all angles. 

These indicators are useful to keep in mind when regarding your own work. Ask yourself if you can tick off these 4 aspects when having conversations with your team or organisation. Bear in mind that the context in which input is requested is very important. This is not about not a group discussion on how to decide who will replace the printer’s toner.

2. Awareness: The different phases of psychological safety

Fortunately, the term psychological safety is not new. It was already referred to in the 1950s, and there has also been research by the author Timothy Clark on the different phases of safety in the workplace, including how to deal with them accordingly. See also Figure 1 below.

Psychological Safety Model
Illustration of the phases of Psychological Safety (Figure 1)

This is strongly tied to the 4 elements mentioned earlier, but here you can also ask yourself where your team or organisation might be falling short or how it could develop itself.

Based on these 4 steps, you can analyse for yourself at the group or organisational level where things are going right or wrong. And if you are indeed ‘stuck’ in a certain phase, you can start doing something about it. Bear in mind that this requires willingness from all participants involved.

3. Insights into the Status Quo

It is extremely valuable for groups of people to gain insight into where they stand at the moment. Everyone senses where certain collaborations are working better or worse and are looking for practical tools to deal with this. 

This is why we have spent the past years developing a tool called Quality of Interaction. This tool objectively measures the current environment, but also asks people how they would like to see their ideal environment. 

These insights, coupled with practical exercises with teams provide an action-oriented approach. The team can pinpoint where things sometimes go wrong and discuss what can be done about it. 

We managed to publish research based on the Quality of Interaction in Harvard Business Review, in collaboration with associates from London Business School, David Lewis and Ashridge Business School, Alison Reynolds. 

The insights provide people with a good framework and, more importantly, facilitate a process to find consensus and discuss the different perceptions and insights within teams together. An added bonus is that this process creates mutual understanding and a common language to talk to each other. It also promotes certain behaviours which will help people get to their desired working environment.

The Two Traits of the Best Problem-Solving Teams

How people choose to behave determines the quality of interaction and the emergent culture. Leaders need to consider not only how they will act, but as importantly, how they will not act. They need to disturb and disrupt unhelpful patterns of behaviour and commit to establishing new routines. Read our research in collaboration with David Lewis and Alison Reynolds.

4. Routines and behaviour

One of the key elements in cultivating safe working environments is to identify certain routines and behaviours that may be counterproductive or even destructive to workplace safety. 

In order to do this, we have seen that becoming aware of certain routines, behaviours and reward elements is particularly useful. After all, negative experiences can quickly escalate at work. It only takes one manager making a derogatory remark towards a team member during a meeting and dominating the conversation, for things to start to escalate. So how can you manage this as an individual? At Human Insight we have used the work of Charles Duhigg for this purpose, who researched the Habit Loop, see Figure 2. 

In it, we see that certain Habit loops can take place on 2 levels:

Together, you and your team members can identify the different Habit loops that create conflict and identify which Habit loops allow a pleasant collaboration. 


A practical plan of action on what to do about the Habit loops that are too counterproductive, is a follow-up step during which you can continue to coach the team and yourself. In addition, we recommend continuing to test this repeatedly, because new routines and behaviours can lead to other undesirable Habit loops.

Habit Loop
The Habit Loop (Figure 2)

Conclusions and practical next steps

As indicated earlier, it starts with people. Cooperation and the clear agreements we all make on what behaviour is desirable and what isn’t, is an important parameter for groups and teams to work together on good terms. 

It also provides a clear consensus for people when someone crosses a certain line. If someone consciously or unconsciously crosses a boundary, then adequately signalling this and engaging in dialogue is the next logical step. This often requires a personal approach regarding all the parties involved and a dialogue to resolve it together. 

On the other side of the spectrum, certain behaviour which causes and perpetuates unwanted habit loops is tolerated, seriously affecting the quality of interaction between people. Of course, creating and managing psychological safety isn’t something that happens overnight. It slowly develops as a result of the investment made in certain key environmental areas that the organisation considers important, such as the ones we have identified in points 1 to 4. 

By continuing to test these points with employees and soliciting feedback from within the organisation, the organisation can take action utilising the input of its employees. And this dialogue is necessary to ensure safety within an organisation.

Do you want to improve psychological safety?

More information, interested in the underlying research or want to talk to us?

Human Insight offers practical insights and strategic tools to support organisations with complex issues.

Fill in our contact form, send us an e-mail to info@human-insight.com or call +31 (0)85 8229827.


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