Psychological Safety - Our Birth Right To Connection

By Reabetsoe Buys



“Psychological safety does not mean that you feel comfortable all the time. Psychological safety means you feel comfortable talking about what makes you uncomfortable.” – Esther Derby


As a young professional the workplace is a space of great anticipation and excitement, but can also be a space of great uncertainty. Working relationships play a significant role in our adaptation, our integration and functioning within the working environment. We are inevitably faced with the responsibility of cultivating connections with our colleagues and leaders to ensure we succeed. 


Understanding psychological safety

One of the key elements in helping us build these connections is having an environment that is psychologically safe. Sanchez, defines psychological safety as “the belief that you won't be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes”. When we are in a psychologically safe working environment, we are able to address issues without fear or punishment, and feel confident to make suggestions or clarify any confusion. We are reassured that there will be no reprisal or negative consequences to our openness and curiosity. When people do not feel psychologically safe in the working environment, it can lead to: more instances of interpersonal conflict; lowered productivity and efficiency; difficulty making decisions and solving problems; as well as stress-related mental and physical health issues. 

Research on psychological safety at work has consistently shown that it leads to stronger teams, improved employee engagement and leads to successful outcomes. Creating a culture of trust, respect and openness encourages opportunities to learn and grow, which improves employees’ motivation, innovation and creativity.

It is also important to emphasise that psychological safety does not mean that people always have to agree, avoid conflict by any means or offer unconditional praise to others for the sake of being nice. But it does begin with the capacity of leaders for modelling behaviours that enhance safety and connection. 


A case in point

Let’s think of Sipho for example - a young man from a small village in the north of Pretoria who has recently started in a graduate programme at a prestigious firm in Sandton. Being the first in his family to graduate from university means he sits with the responsibility of “making it work” and meeting the expectations of those around him. As a hardworking young professional, Sipho did not assume the working world would be easy, but he has been feeling uneasy and uncertain about his ability to learn and grow in this new space. Everyone else seems to get on with things, but Sipho has been too self-conscious to ask questions or openly communicate his ideas in meetings. He finds that he asks himself a lot of questions – what if I sound incompetent? What if my ideas aren’t good enough? Am I really an important member of my team? 

How leaders can foster connectedness through greeting 

Greeting is one of the first ways in which we connect with others. While greeting is one of the basic functions of communication, it has also been shown to foster acknowledgement and belonging, elicit positive emotions (for both the greeter and the greeted), lead to positive conversations as well as provide an opportunity for connections to form and for relationships to grow. In fact, neurobiological research has found that when humans feel safe, we allow ourselves to become accessible to others without feeling or expressing threat and vulnerability. This sense of safety enhances social connections and allows relationships to evolve and for functioning to occur in a healthy manner.

Leadership behaviour has been shown to have a significant impact on teams and in the working environment. Therefore, Sipho’s leader has the perfect opportunity to foster a safe and healthy working relationship with him, which can create psychological safety for him. Prioritising actions and behaviours which will make Sipho feel included and understood, will also allow him to feel free to approach his leader with queries, questions and ideas, which will inevitably support his learning journey. 

How can a leader start this process? By initiating connection through an intentional greeting every morning. A leader who shows genuine interest and initiates conversations based on getting to know their team members will form the basis of a psychologically safe working space. This will inevitably contribute towards the development of a learning culture which has positive long-term benefits for teams and organisations.