Employee CommsHRLeadershipCulture

Why Psychological Safety Matters in Internal Communications


 — July 21st, 2021

Why Psychological Safety Matters in Internal Communications

Fearless Internal Communication: Part 1 of a four-part series on psychological safety in the workplace

➡️ You spend a month organizing a Town Hall and you dedicate 20 minutes in the program for questions. The CEO’s invitation to ask her anything is met with nothing but awkward silence.

➡️ You write a thought-provoking blog for the intranet, and you hope it sparks a great discussion. The article gets 308 likes, but no comments.

➡️ You are leading a change initiative and you want to better understand the impact on key employees, but the only input you get is through gossip and back channels.

Scenarios like these are a good indication that there is a lack of psychological safety in your organization. 

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Not only does this impact your ability as internal communication professional to build a better employee experience and culture, but it can also have disastrous implications for the ability of your organization to successfully navigate a volatile and uncertain world.

Psychological Safety Defined

Amy Edmondson, the Harvard professor that is considered the leading expert in psychological safety extensively (superfan here) defines the concept as:

A belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.

She, among many other researchers, has proven that psychological safety is the underpinning for people to work effectively, for teams to thrive, and for overall success in the organization. She calls organizations with high levels of psychological safety “fearless”.

Why Psychological Safety Matters for Your Organization

The magic of psychological safety is not only that it eliminates the fear that holds people back, but it also:

  • Promotes conversation
  • Encourages innovation
  • Creates an environment for people to be themselves and not apologize for it
  • Allows people to take risks
  • Encourages people to depend on one another
  • Allows pride to step aside for progress

What it is not

Psychological safety is not about agreeing with each other for the sake of being nice. I like to call this ‘group think’, where teams and organizations are so busy agreeing with each other that they don’t consider a different perspective.

This is where trouble can start.

Psychological safety is also not about giving people praise or unconditional support for everything that is said, nor is it about creating a workplace where people are not expected to adhere to high standards or meet deadlines.

My Personal Journey

I’ve been interested in the concept of psychological safety for several years now. As someone who has worked with organizations for over 20 years to improve internal communication and to successfully manage major change initiatives, I’ve long believed that the best communication with employees is authentic, transparent, and two-way.

After discovering Edmondson’s work, I realized psychological safety was often the missing element in organizations struggling to get internal communications right.

My discovery was reinforced by a difficult experience with a client. I was supporting two projects and my work was making a difference.

Because of this, I was asked to help with another high-profile initiative. In the end, I was juggling three projects. I pushed myself too hard, got sick (thanks H1N1!), and made some typos on a draft PowerPoint presentation.

My contract was ended early because of an incomplete sentence on a deck. After beating myself up for several weeks, I started to reflect on the organization’s culture. Many people reached out to me and told me how much they loved my work and what a difference it made.

Many were fearful that the same thing would happen to them. I realized that the organization suffered from a lack of psychological safety.

While I learned some personal lessons, it became clear to me that without psychological safety, even organizations considered great places to work could become toxic and rife with fear.

Incorporating Psychological Safety into our Work

I began to integrate concepts related to psychological safety in our communications audits and when developing strategies and materials for leaders.

Our guidance was heavily influenced by Edmondson’s work. A few months ago, I was selected to participate in a certification program developed by Edmondson and her team at Harvard. In this program, I deepened my knowledge. 

In this four-part series, I’ll explore the four dimensions of psychological safety and how it helps people and teams thrive.

I’ll share why psychological safety is more important than ever and how it should be a key component of creating the future of work.

In the final blog, I’ll share a roadmap for internal communications professionals to work with leaders to build psychological safety in their organizations.

Elevating Other Voices: How to Promote Diversity & Inclusion Through Employee Storytelling

Follow along over the next few weeks as I share my expertise in this area.

Understanding psychological safety and making it central to our work as internal communications professionals will transform our practice.

(In the second part of this series, next Wednesday, July 28th, Andrea takes a deeper dive into the four dimensions of psychological safety and how critical it is to corporate priorities such as inclusion and belonging, innovation, learning, and resilience)

Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

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