Employee engagement

How Psychological Safety Drives Productivity and Engagement

Roger Delves
February 21, 2020
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Employee engagement is a hot topic, but one with roots going back three decades and a great deal of academic research behind it.

The first reference to employee engagement was provided by Dr. William Kahn—often called the father of employee engagement—who referred to it as "personal engagement." He described it as a state influenced by three psychological conditions:

  • Meaningfulness is about our actual job and the role we hold, about the sort of professional interactions we have, and how important they are to how we see ourselves.
  • Safety is concerned with the quality of interpersonal relationships, the nature of group dynamics and the way in which we are led and supported.
  • Availability captures how much physical and emotional energy and confidence we have available to us, how present and available to others we are,  and the degree to which the world away from work distracts us, to good or bad effect. 

A decade later, Wilmar Schaufeli, a professor of work and organizational psychology at Utrecht University, defined engagement as being a “positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind that is characterized by vigor, dedication and absorption."

Research shows that engagement is more likely to happen when three things are in place. First, we give people certain things at work which they value—things like autonomy and self-efficacy, and a sense of safety. To do that, organizations need to create a positive organizational climate. Finally, we need to lead in a transformational way. 

There are things that we can and should encourage in the workplace that will lead to higher employee engagement. For example, we should embody the four competencies of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management.

By doing so, we’ll encourage the growth of emotional intelligence in our colleagues and teammates. We can encourage and praise colleagues, which will likely cause their sense of self-efficacy and self-esteem to grow. We can set a tone of realistic optimism which others will then observe and reflect, helping to create a positive culture within the team.

All of this will help team engagement. People will feel more ownership over their work environment. They’ll feel more able to manage their personal stress levels. They’ll feel more confident—so they’ll perform better and become even more engaged—and a virtuous circle is created.

There's also plenty of evidence that shows the more engaged we are, the better we do our jobs.

For example, according to Gallup, managers account for 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores. This means that the most effective way to address employee engagement is by giving leaders and managers the tools and skills they need to engage their teams.

What’s more, engaged employees are 21% more productive than unengaged employees, so there is a real bottom line benefit to building levels of engagement. Check out more astounding stats about employee engagementover on the Bonusly blog. 

Feeling psychologically safe

Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership at Harvard, coined the expression psychological safety in her book, The Fearless Organization. She says that psychological safety is about recognizing that high performance requires the openness, flexibility, and interdependence that can develop only in a psychologically safe environment.

Psychological safety only exists when there is a shared belief that's it's okay to take interpersonal and professional risks.

Watch Amy explaining more of her ideas

Dr. Laura Delizonna, a Stanford academic who specializes in mindfulness and emotional intelligence, values psychological safety highly as a route to employee engagement. She says that by establishing a sense of safety in work teams, this results in higher levels of engagement, increased motivation to tackle difficult tasks, more learning and development opportunities, and better performance.

In a psychologically safe environment, people feel able to make mistakes, able to admit failure, and able to learn from failure. Everyone openly shares ideas without fear of criticism, and this leads to better innovation and decision-making. 

Putting engagement and safety together


Central to the idea of team engagement are Kahn’s three psychological conditions, which we discussed above. Of these, the psychological condition of safety has much in common with Edmondson’s notion of a place of psychological safety. That’s the link between individual/team engagement and the creation of places of psychological safety

If leaders can create these safe spaces both for the team as a whole and with individuals within the team, they will be helping to create maximum engagement, which will in turn drive maximum performance.

Making safe spaces

You can't create a psychologically safe work environment right away. It requires time. Leaders have to be open and emotionally available, even vulnerable, as they persuade individuals and teams that it's OK to inhabit this kind of environment. 

It’s a place where truth can be spoken to power, where constructive critical feedback can be given and received, where ideas can be offered. So it has to feel a secure and fair place.

Everyone needs to feel that they can be themselves and that they can exercise autonomy within the space, regardless of rank or expertise. They must also feel that they are held to have value within the group and that they are trusted and can trust within the space. 

Here are four simple steps will help you to make these spaces:

  1. Get to know one another. And not just on a surface level. Find out what makes each team member tick. What are their motivational values, hopes, dreams, fears, ambitions? What are their values? What do they love about their work and what would they change? You can’t create psychological safety without mutual trust—and we don’t trust people we don’t know! Check out this great article on team building that might help.
  2. Set expectations. Make sure everyone understands that this is about being open and honest, that everyone is allowed whatever personal boundaries they want, and that this process is to create a high performing team. If you make it fun and transparent, they’ll take a step towards you. 
  3. Show some vulnerability. After all, we’re long past the hero leader. Nowadays, it's rare that anyone expects leaders to be aloof charismatics who point the way with a shining sword. You’re human, they’re human. Show your humanity and you’ll be surprised how quickly they’ll reciprocate.
  4. Keep communicating. Give and get feedback. Ask people how they think it’s going. Tell people when you’re pleased with progress. You're creating and maintaining a culture, and you should be frequently communicating around it! 

The feng shui of psychological safety

When you begin to create psychologically safe spaces, you have to think carefully about these spaces if you want them to truly contribute to individual and team engagement.

They cannot be inconsequential. They must be of value. 

You can’t create something as hard to build and maintain as this sort of space, invite the team or an individual into the space, feel the shared intimacy of psychological safety... and then spend half an hour discussing mundane business matters! You need to spend time in this safe space talking about the really important stuff.

If that’s going to work, you need a relationship first. So you need to carve out time to spend talking about shared interests—whether it’s the shared interest of a common place of work, or sharing family stories, or holiday plans, hobbies or sports. This shows that you care personally, and that’s important. Then you can build up to sharing motivational values, hopes and fears, dreams and ambitions. 

Before you invite someone into a place of psychological safety for those really important conversations, you need that individual to know that you care and you need a relationship which allows for radical candor. Then you can really make the best use of these places of psychological safety. You can read more about radical candor, and it's correlation to being a good boss, in this article.

This is the quality time that will make a real difference to individual and team performance, because this is where you can address head-on those things that need to be said.

What’s in it for you?

Once you are confident that you have established relationships, even with the people to whom you may not warm personally, then you can use the psychologically safe spaces to do and to be a number of things:

  • A challenging safe space where those difficult conversations that have to be had, (whether with individuals or teams) can be had properly, openly, and fruitfully. Maybe you initiate them, maybe someone else does. But the important thing is that they happen.
  • An inclusive safe space where the diversity that exists within the team or the differences that exist between individuals can be explored and transformed into inclusion. A space where conflict can be encouraged and addressed.
  • A collaborative safe space where pairs or groups can come together to share ideas, brainstorm, innovate, in a creative, supportive, uncritical way
  • A learning safe space where people can develop new skills, new understanding. Perhaps the first learning experience can be around psychological safety...

What does success look like?


What we’re looking at here is the intersection of engagement with psychological safety. So this is four quadrant country. Here we are:

Disengaged, psychologically safe

Comfortable club

Engaged, psychologically safe

High achievement

Disengaged, psychological safety low

Apathetic team

Engaged, psychological safety low

Anxious team

Comfortable clubs

In this quadrant, something will have happened to undermine the engagement. There will be some combination of inappropriate job demands, a working environment which has become less pleasant, raised targets, reduced resources, an unhappy merger, or acquisition, but there will still be a team leader in place who can maintain a place of psychological safety.

What you then see is the creation of a comfortable club. They’ll do the work but individuals will be predominantly self-interested and the group will be primarily interested in the group’s own comfort. The leader will be reinforcing the team’s sense of disengagement. This team won’t go the extra mile, will be reactive, and is generally too comfortable to move.

Anxious teams

It’s all too easy to create an anxious team. You’ve worked hard to create individual and team engagement, and you’re rewarded by rigor, dedication, and absorption. So far, so good. But if there is no sense of psychological safety, the team and individuals within it will be anxious.

The team’s performance will be acceptable, but it won’t be maximized. The atmosphere within the team will too often be strained, conflict within the team may remain unresolved, interpersonal relationships may be difficult. Far too many teams are in this state, because there is no place created where they can be genuinely honest with each other and as a team.

Apathetic teams

Apathetic teams are a sign of failure. If you can create neither engagement nor psychological safety, your group will be characterized by apathy at best, internal dissent, backbiting, office politics designed to undermine at worst. This is a group that will be quiet quitting examples who do the bare minimum and will be riven by discord.

High achievement teams

However, when a team is highly engaged and feels psychologically safe, they are likely to be a high achievement team. They’ll be united, individuals will be selfless, commitment will be high. The leader will have created a culture of which to be proud. Success is never guaranteed... but under some circumstances it is a great deal more likely than under others.

So psychological safety is really critical to employee engagement and employee engagement is central to team success. We know from the research that managers are vital to the engagement levels of team members. So this all boils down to one simple, unavoidable fact: managers need to be able to build, maintain and use to good effect places of psychological safety.

Which means I have just two questions. Are you, and can you?

For more tips on fostering employee engagement, check out: 

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