Creating Psychological Safety through Design

Updated: May 6

The most important asset of a company is its people. At no time has this been more evident than now, during the great resignation. To be at their best and thrive in the workplace, people need to feel safe – emotionally and physically. Psychological safety is key to building robust, connected, innovative, happy teams[1],[2],[3],[4],[5]. Psychological safety is being able to show and employ oneself without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career, it can be defined as a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. The positive effects of psychological safety present themselves in a variety of ways:


Innovation breakthroughs. Innovation is a break from the norm: in order to move away from the status quo towards something better you have to feel comfortable expressing a different idea - standing up in front of a boss, colleague or complete stranger to challenge how things are done


Retention and Engagement. Having a strong social bond with those around you leads to people feeling connected, like they belong and like they want to continue to contribute. Employees with a best friend at work are 7x more likely to be engaged in their job.[6]


Open Communication. Feeling safe to share or correct critical details prevents errors and miscommunication but requires trust and openness. Asking for help and admitting errors are also vital team characteristics that require a firm foundation of psychological safety.


Why the need for psychological safety is so deeply engrained

Our brains have three distinct parts that developed at different points in our evolutionary past. Each has its own purpose and functions. The lizard brain is primarily focused on reactions, instinct, and basic survival. The mammal brain handles emotion, memory and basic decision making. Finally, the human brain, gives us the ability to problem solve, to imagine a future that doesn't exist, and consciousness.


The executive functions of the human brain are the abilities employers seek. However, in order to fully unlock them, the concerns of the mammal and lizard brain must first be addressed. Building codes, laws, and social programs largely appease the survival fears of the reptile brain, but the emotional relationship concerns of the mammal brain are a constant battle – psychological safety may well be the antidote and the built environment plays a key role.


How to influence psychological safety

One of the most effective ways to build psychological safety and strengthen a culture is through constant and consistent belonging cues. Belonging cues are signals that come from the outside in, signals from the environment that that convey closeness, safety and a shared future[7]. What the brain hears is “hey, it's all good, you're comfortable, you can relax, you can focus your energy on higher levels of cognition.” The four primary belonging cues are:


1. You're safe here. You are safe physically. You're safe emotionally. You're safe relationally. You are safe.

2. You're free to be yourself. You can express your opinion, what's important to you, and nobody is going to judge you.

3. You're valued. The community around you want to know what you have to say - you make a difference.

4. We have a shared future together. People are going to look out for you and encourage you. Together you're going to create something that's more than a sum of your parts.


Most of these cues are behavioral as they deal with relationships, and the signals group members send to one another. Humor and laughter are strong belonging cues – for people engaging in the laughter it creates an emotional bond, for those nearby it signals that this is a friendly space (safe) and encourages them to let their guard down (be yourself). Setting high standards is another interesting cue because it signals two things, first that you believe in the other person’s ability (value) and second it is future oriented encouraging all parties to imagine a positive shared outcome (future).

Mind control: Designing a better default behavior

Psychological safety is based on a continuous flow of trust building behaviors and interpersonal interactions. The physical environment has a strong influence on the behaviors of those using the space. Therefore, the design of the built environment can and should be used to nudge people towards the behaviors that build psychological safety in teams.


Consider the three images below: there are three similar desks, three similar people working on three similar computers, but one of these people is more likely to take a healthy exercise break and another to eat junk food. Clearly, the environment can subtly cue us towards a specific action. With this in mind, it is possible to design a space with

a desired result in mind by making use of a concept known as cognitive friction. The idea is behind cognitive friction is that the brain craves energy saving shortcuts often choosing the path of least resistance without you having to think about it. By designing a space to make the desired route easier or more accessible you can lead people towards a desired behavior.


What would it mean to design a space to make psychological safety the default? That type of a space would not only influence behavior, but also culture, employee retention, innovation, and much more. What might this look like?


Locating social spaces that support friendly multi person activities throughout the building, particularly near circulation and other common areas to increase their visibility and encourage their use.



Team zones and furniture that position people to work and engage face to face rather than turning their backs towards one another



Curated and prominently displayed strategic artifacts from the company or team’s history can share a story of success tying the group together and inspire high aspirations for future work.


Narrower hallways can encourage employees to pass in closer proximity to each other with frequent break out zones enable those chance encounters to become deeper conversations.


Warm natural materials and comfortable furniture create a home like setting that encourages people to let their guard down and share which builds bonds, trust and psychological safety.



Conclusion

Clearly, choices made in the design of the physical environment all influence behavior and the way team members engage with each other – the question is were they purposeful choices? In your space, how are you setting the stage for psychological safety: for innovative, happy, connected, open, productive teams? How are you enabling people to thrive as employees, as team members, and as fellow humans.

[1] https://hbr.org/2017/08/high-performing-teams-need-psychological-safety-heres-how-to-create-it

[2] https://www.ccl.org/articles/leading-effectively-articles/what-is-psychological-safety-at-work/

[3] https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/people-and-organizational-performance/our-insights/psychological-safety-and-the-critical-role-of-leadership-development

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/what-google-learned-from-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html

[5] https://www.forbes.com/sites/shanesnow/2020/05/04/how-psychological-safety-actually-works/?sh=3f910396f864

[6] https://hbr.org/2017/08/having-work-friends-can-be-tricky-but-its-worth-it

[7] Hardy, Benjamin. Willpower Doesn't Work: Discover the Hidden Keys to Success. Hachette Books, 2019.


*Special thanks to Chao Dou and Crystal Inge for their contributions

to the graphics and content of this post

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