Why companies need to foster a culture of Psychological Safety  

A single, unvoiced opinion can have disastrous consequences.  

The sinking of the Swedish warship Vasa on its maiden voyage in 1628, the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, and the Boeing 737 MAX crashes in 2019 and 2020 were all the result of faulty engineering and manufacturing practices. But a deeper issue was also at play: each was born of a work atmosphere that crushed the ability of employees to voice concerns, surface problems, or challenge authority. 

What is Psychological Safety in the Workplace? 

Psychological Safety refers to an environment where employees feel comfortable expressing concerns, admitting mistakes, and taking risks without fear of repercussions or humiliation. In its absence, critical voices are silenced, mistakes are covered up, and innovation is stifled. 

The ill-fated Vasa warship was recovered from the bottom of the Baltic Sea 333  
years after it capsized, and is now enshrined in a museum in Stockholm, Sweden. 

The Vasa capsized due to a top-heavy design, poor project management, and accelerated timelines forced by King Gustavus Adolphus – no one was willing to challenge his unreasonable demands. Two weeks before the Shuttle disaster, one engineer had concerns but, fearing retribution, didn’t speak up. And it’s now well-documented that Boeing engineers felt pressured to meet deadlines, reduce costs, and avoid delays in delivering the 737 MAX, creating an environment where critical questioning was discouraged. 

The Benefits of a Safe Environment Are Immense  

According to a report by Boston Consulting Group (BCG), employees who feel psychologically safe are 2.1 times more motivated, 2.7 times happier, and 3.3 times more able to reach their full potential at work.  

Other benefits for organizations and employees include:  

  • Reduced accidents and mistakes. When employees feel free to make mistakes without fear of punishment, they actually make fewer of them. In fact, a psychologically safe workplace can experience 40% fewer safety incidents
  • Increased productivity. Gallup found that psychological safety boosts productivity by 12%. 
  • Improved employee retention. Gallup also found that companies where employees feel that they can speak up and that their voice matters have a 27% lower employee turnover
  • Unleashed innovation and creativity. Fear impairs creative insight, while safety supports innovation and imagination. Innovation and creativity require risk taking, and people tend not to take risks unless they feel psychologically safe. 

How to Nurture a Psychologically Safe Culture 

It starts at the top. Leaders must be empathetic and foster a culture where team members are unafraid to share bad news, ask for help, admit mistakes, and respectfully disagree. 

Having a clear employee communications strategy can also enhance psychological safety by:  

Improving communication and conflict resolution among teams. Multichannel and two-way communications strategies create a consistent flow of communications as well as create opportunities for employees to share their thoughts, ideas, and concerns without judgment or reprisal.  

Enhancing collaboration and teamwork: Launching structured networks, including communications ambassadors and culture forums, can help identify and solve problems. 

Strengthening trust, through organizational clarity. Strategic, smartly executed communication can foster clarity, cohesion, and trust – especially in today’s hybrid work model. Consequently, employees feel supported, empowered, and equipped to play their role. 

The Stakes Are High 

From engineering disasters to stifled innovation, the costs of an unsafe company culture can be severe. By prioritizing psychological safety, leaders empower their teams, improve performance, and help their organizations to thrive. 

Porter Novelli’s Employee Experience team has created programs designed to drive psychological safety for organizations across industries. For more information on how we can help yours, please contact us.