The Shrinking Workforce – Why Psychological Safety Matters More Than Ever

Surprised man looking through a magnifying glassThe workforce is shrinking. With baby boomers retiring and lower birth rates, companies are facing a shortage of talent. At the same time, employees today have higher expectations for fulfilment and work-life balance. This combination makes retaining top talent more critical than ever.

As leaders, how do we keep our best people engaged and performing at their peak? The answer lies in creating an environment of psychological safety. Studies have shown that when employees feel safe to take risks, speak up, and be vulnerable in their workplace, teams demonstrate higher productivity, satisfaction, and innovation.

A recent Harvard study found that the highest performing teams have one thing in common – psychological safety. Google’s Project Aristotle came to the same conclusion after an extensive analysis of its team effectiveness. Psychological safety is all about creating a workplace where people feel accepted and respected. When the fear of negative consequences is removed, employees are much more likely to contribute fully.

Some ways leaders can cultivate psychological safety:

Model vulnerability yourself by admitting mistakes and being open to feedback. This signals it’s okay for others too.

As a leader, one of the most powerful things you can do is model vulnerability yourself. When you admit mistakes, take ownership of failures, and are open to critical feedback, it signals to others that it’s okay for them to take risks as well.

Leaders who can demonstrate humility and fallibility paradoxically build more trust and credibility with their teams. It shows that no one is expected to have all the answers or be perfect. Criticism and setbacks are normal parts of growth and learning.

Specifically, ways leaders can model vulnerability include:

– Openly admitting when you make a mistake, take responsibility, and explain how you will improve or do things differently next time. Avoid blaming others.

– When receiving feedback, listen attentively and thank team members for having the courage to share their perspectives. Refrain from being defensive.

– Share an instance where you took a risk, failed, and learned from the experience. Discuss what you would do differently in hindsight.

– Talk about times you faced self-doubt, imposter syndrome, or difficult challenges. Share your thought process and how you worked through it.

– If the team misses a goal, take ownership as the leader rather than calling out others. Invite a frank discussion on the contributing factors.

– Occasionally ask for advice from team members on areas you can improve as a leader. Implement their feedback.

By courageously exposing your own vulnerabilities as a leader, you give others permission to take interpersonal risks too. This models that the reward of learning and growth outweighs the pain of imperfection. Over time, the team will feel increasingly psychologically safe to engage fully.

Foster authentic connections between team members. Take time for bonding and get to know people on a human level.

To build psychological safety, leaders need to carve out time for team members to authentically connect on a human level. This means going beyond the surface and getting to know each other as real people, not just coworkers.

Schedule regular team building activities, be it going out for lunch, taking a cooking class together, or doing an outdoor adventure retreat. Make time for bonding, storytelling, and fun. Share more about your personal lives, families, hobbies, passions and values.

You can also use meetings for quick bonding exercises like having everyone share a childhood nickname, favourite vacation spot, or recommended book. Keep a box of random questions on hand to spark conversations.

Encourage mentorship connections between junior and senior team members. Initiate a peer recognition program where employees shout out coworkers for achievements.

If working remotely, have video calls begin with a check-in on how everyone is doing. Be present and actively listen when team members share what they’re going through.

Make an effort to connect 1:1 with employees over coffee chats or virtual lunches. Learn what motivates them, their career goals and strengths. Check in on how they’re feeling about their role and the team dynamics.

When people know and trust each other on a deeper level, they will feel more comfortable being vulnerable and honest together. Taking time to foster authentic human connections lays the groundwork for psychological safety.

Consider all perspectives before making decisions. Seek input from different voices and welcome respectful debate.

To cultivate psychological safety, leaders need to actively seek out and consider diverse perspectives before making major decisions. The more employees feel their voices are heard and valued, the safer they will feel engaging in discussions.

There are several ways leaders can be more inclusive of different viewpoints:

– When proposing a new direction, ask each team member to share their thoughts, concerns and suggestions. Have junior staff speak first so they feel comfortable contributing.

– Designate someone to play devil’s advocate, challenging assumptions and voicing counterarguments. This ensures you avoid groupthink.

– Survey team members anonymously if people may not be comfortable speaking up publicly.

– Weigh pros and cons through structured debates where different employees are assigned to argue different sides.

– Form committees representing various stakeholder groups and functions to provide input on new initiatives.

– Actively reach out to introverted or quiet voices who may not volunteer opinions unless prompted.

– Thank employees for critiques and address concerns rather than dismissing them.

– If debates become heated, remind people to criticise ideas not individuals. Keep dialogues respectful.

– Explain the rationale when making decisions that go against the team’s advice. Show you seriously contemplated their perspectives.

Making space for dissenting views leads to better decisions. Leaders who authentically engage with different voices will build trust and psychological safety across their teams.

Clearly define goals and expectations. Ambiguity creates uncertainty, eroding psychological safety.

When goals and expectations are vague or ambiguous, employees become unsure of how to succeed in their roles. This uncertainty erodes psychological safety and makes people hesitant to take risks or speak up.

As a leader, it’s critical to clearly define objectives, responsibilities, and success metrics for each person and the team as a whole. Some best practices include:

– Collaboratively develop goals together as a team rather than dictating top-down. Encourage discussion to clarify any confusion.

– Put goals and expectations in writing so there is no room for interpretation. Review regularly as a team.

– Provide detailed rubrics, frameworks, or decision-making criteria so people understand how their work will be evaluated.

– Offer examples of successful outcomes and allow employees to ask clarifying questions.

– Discuss priorities openly so people know what to focus on amidst competing demands.

– Give frequent feedback on performance against clearly defined goals. Recognise achievements.

– When changes require realigning objectives, communicate transparently. Involve the team in redefining plans.

– Develop accountability structures like check-ins or peer reviews to surface any blindspots.

By proactively setting unambiguous goals and guardrails, leaders reduce uncertainty. This empowers teams to confidently move forward and take ownership over their work. Clarity enables psychological safety.

Appreciate risk-taking and failure. Reward good intent and effort, not just outcomes.

To build psychological safety, leaders need to recognise that innovation involves taking risks which can sometimes result in failure. Employees will feel safe to experiment only if they know effort and intent matter as much as pure outcomes.

Some ways to show appreciation for smart risks and normalise failure include:

– Praise employees for volunteering innovative ideas and taking initiative even if the results aren’t perfect.

– Publicly recognise those who stepped up to address a challenge, not just those who succeeded.

– Avoid criticising people for mistakes or missteps. Focus on learnings.

– Share stories of when you took a risk that failed early in your career and what you learned from it.

– Build reflection time into projects to discuss what went well and what could be improved next time.

– Have people conduct premortems to identify risks upfront so problems aren’t seen as failures after the fact.

– Reward prudent experimentation even if certain attempts don’t pan out.

– Institute staged-approach pilots that anticipate mistakes and build in opportunities to course correct.

– Analyse failures rationally, focusing on root causes over individual blame.

– Allocate budget/time explicitly for experimentation to signal it’s valued.

The most innovative organisations foster a learning culture, not a culture of perfection. They appreciate both wisdom and courage, which includes embracing failure. This builds critical psychological safety.

With a shrinking and selective workforce, building an engaged team matters more than ever. By focusing on psychological safety, leaders can retain top talent while enabling their organisations to evolve and stay competitive. The companies that succeed will be those that make their people feel welcomed, valued and safe to chart the path forward.