What psychological safety looks like in a hybrid work environment

By Carli Uys

Head of Marketing, Research and Development (MCom Industrial Psychology and MCom Communication studies)

As the world keeps changing due to the pandemic, a lot of focus has been placed on reduced trust and power dynamics within an organisation. This can impact the effectiveness of the hybrid workplace as managers are required to rethink and expand one of the strongest proven predictors of team effectiveness: psychological safety.

Psychological safety is described as the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up when you have ideas, questions, concerns or make mistakes.

There are known to be 4 stages of psychological safety at work:

Stage 1 – Inclusion safety: This refers to safety that satisfies the basic human need to connect and belong. This stage allows you to feel safe, to be yourself and feel accepted for who you are.

Stage 2 – Learner safety: This refers to feeling safe to learn and grow. You feel safe in this stage to exchange in the learning process, asking questions, giving and receiving feedback, experimenting and making mistakes.

Stage 3 – Contributor safety: This stage satisfies your need to make a difference. You feel safe enough to use your skills and abilities to make a meaningful contribution.

Stage 4 – Challenger safety: This stage satisfies your need to make things better. You feel safe enough to speak up and challenge the status quo when you think there’s an opportunity to change and improve.

When employees feel psychologically safe at work, they will feel safe enough to take risks and to speak openly without worry or fear of retribution. This also means that employees will feel respected and valued for what they bring to the team, and they will feel that their well-being genuinely matters to their leaders and managers.

Hybrid work poses a risk to the idea of fairness in organisations as it might impact a certain degree if equity and equality between employees. The hybrid workplace leads to employees possibly working in two very different situations, which can cause varying levels of autonomy, opportunity to socialise, and access to management. This can then lead to a feeling of exclusivity and inequality, which can erode employee trust. This gives a clear indication of how important it is to treat all employees equally, regardless of their working situation. It has been found that during periods of change people often feel under threat, which suggest that psychological safety may not immediately be translated to this new world of work. This leads to the importance of leaders and managers to focus on developing and nurturing their teams to maintain high-performance.

How to create psychological safety in a hybrid work environment:

  1. Provide clarity and stability: Psychological safety is the key component to keep a team’s well-being in balance. If psychological safety is not the key component, then team members risk responding to threats or interferences by going into “protection” mode. The “protection” mode can manifest in two ways: (1) either people will appear submissive, passive, and disconnected, or (2) they will appear dominant, aggressive, and arrogant. Both responses are symptoms of your team lacking psychological safety, and it can negatively impact their well-being and performance in the long run.
  2. Rid failure of its taboo: For teams to be able to have honest conversations, they need to trust one another. If teams have a climate of psychological safety, then they can work with the belief that a team member will not be punished or embarrassed for voicing ideas, questions or mistakes. Hallmarks of these teams are respect and trust. This leads to each individual feeling valued and safe to contribute, take risks and lead when it seems fitting. This in turn leads to building the teams confidence and serves to improve the quality of their work.
  3. Create an environment of exploration: In a psychological safe environment people are entirely accepting of one another. This can be great when working collaboratively on projects as the team feels comfortable challenging each other and equally, they are open to being challenged back. This can result in the best projects being started, developed, and delivered.
  4. Role model ethical behaviour: Research has found that high levels of psychological safety can sometimes lead teams to push the boundaries of ethical behaviour, due to their trust in one another. The contagion of unethical behaviour amongst psychologically safe teams can be controlled if team leaders draw their team’s attention back to desirable behaviour.

Leaders play a very important role in shaping their team’s culture, but it is also up to each team member to contribute to a psychologically safe climate at work and in their teams. When leaders create psychological safety in a hybrid work environment they can expect to see high levels of engagement, increased motivation to tackle difficult problems, more learning and development opportunities, and better performance.