Psychological Safety in the Workplace

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Joseph A. Knothe
  • 420th Air Base Squadron

A few weeks ago our 501st Community Support Coordinator contacted me to ask if I would participate in the March GRIT syllabus. GRIT, in my opinion, has been good for the command and appears to be moving us closer to our declared objective; namely, building resilient airmen. So, I was happy to volunteer for whatever was needed. I learned that the Community Support office and Public Affairs team were looking for a few Pathfinders to answer questions in a video interview that would accompany this month’s GRIT topic, which is titled “The Respectful Warrior.” The question which I was asked was this: “What does psychological safety in the workplace mean to you, and do you believe respect plays a role?”

Well, “psychological safety” is not really a term I have had much exposure to, and certainly not one on which I have spent a significant amount of time pondering. A quick Google search defines it as a state of mind in which an individual does not need to fear being humiliated for making honest mistakes, bringing up new or untested ideas, or asking what appears to be a silly question. As I contemplated the idea, it became apparent that psychological safety is absolutely necessary in our Air Force. In the simplest sense, psychological safety promotes learning. As I continued the thought experiment, I determined that the best way to deduce the beneficial effects of psychological safety is to observe the consequences of its absence. We’ve all been there before: hesitant to ask a question out of fear of embarrassment. Likewise, we discover new or more efficient methods to accomplish a task but hold back because we are afraid to try. That kind of fear and reluctance stifles learning; definitely not the environment that we need in the Air Force when so much of our time is spent on training, professional development, and process improvement. If we expect our airmen, meaning all airmen, to develop professionally, we as commanders, supervisors, and teachers need to foster a safe environment for learning. In essence, we need to create a psychologically safe workplace.

We can do this by encouraging an atmosphere where questions are welcomed as a way to both further the conversation and develop synergy as a team. We must actively listen, not just to respond, but to hear and appreciate the ideas of others. Additionally, we must promote the unique perspectives of all team members by acknowledging the viability of member suggestions. Everyone brings a meaningful input to the table, and this input may potentially solve a particularly difficult problem or accomplish a task in a better way. An atmosphere of psychological safety allows members to volunteer these ideas without the fear of ridicule, derision, or indifference. Finally, we must respect each other and the roles of the individual in the workplace.  The latter half of the question I received, “Do you believe respect plays a role in psychological safety,” addresses what I consider to be the largest component of establishing a psychologically safe workplace and provides immediate insight into the manner in which those safe workplaces are shaped.

To me, establishment of an environment in which respect governs our words as well as actions is foundational to creating psychological safety in the workplace. It starts with respect for individuals and the value that they bring to an organization. Since the early days of organized fighting forces, uniformity has been the preferred practice. However, we must also see and respect the individual wearing the uniform, whether it be battle dress or civilian attire. Foremost, it is incumbent upon commanders to set the expectation for mutual respect and lead by example. The second piece to creating respect is that airmen themselves, again, meaning all airmen, must be worthy of respect. Yes, we each play a central and decisive role in the respect that we receive. It goes without saying that respect is earned, not given. To earn respect in my squadron, and I will venture to guess all squadrons, individuals must add value to the unit and provide support to its mission. That means being good at the job and aspiring to learn ever more. That means adhering to our core values. That means continuous professional growth and self-improvement. That even means being courteous to others. Conversely, it does not mean perfection, and never has.

If we as airmen do our part to be respectable, and our leaders promote an atmosphere of mutual respect, we should expect nothing less than an environment that promotes learning, responsible risk taking, and problem solving. In other words, a workplace in which psychological safety is the reigning theme. This, in turn, leads to a healthy unit, a strong unit, and a unit full of resilient airmen.