Continuing from our previous article about building psychological safety written by Ioana Hreninciuc, we delve deeper into how to build psychological safety in your company.  

This second part is written by Sophie Vo, the founder of Rise and Play, who offers her perspectives and experience in establishing psychological safety in her former and current game studios.

As a reminder from the previous article, there are four stages of development of Psychological Safety:

  • Inclusion - feeling accepted and understood as a person
  • Learner - being comfortable asking questions and admitting mistakes
  • Contributor - knowing you can speak up and are trusted for your expertise
  • Challenger - confidently questioning others or the status quo in a respectful way

This article focuses on the transition from one stage to another. As a leader, it's crucial to discern what aspects you can control or influence, and what factors remain beyond your reach. 

We will also address how to draw the line between the company’s responsibility and the individual’s responsibility in creating psychological safety. It is not a straightforward equation.

Psychological safety is, at its core, a “feeling” - but it can't be established merely by assuring team members of a safe environment. What's needed is a foundation of trust in the system and the people within it. It's not something that can be engineered; it's an emotion, an atmosphere that needs to be nurtured.

Leaders can't directly influence how team members "feel," but they do have control over their own actions and the environment they create. The question then arises, how can leaders foster an environment that encourages psychological safety?

Let’s tackle the four stages one by one to break down the steps required to move from one stage to another. The first stage, Inclusion, revolves around the creation of an environment where people feel accepted and a sense of belonging. Inclusion at its core entails ensuring that nobody feels criticized or excluded for who they are (i.e. by gender, race, look, social background) or for expressing their ideas. It starts with having a clear company culture and ways of working, which creates foundational rules on how feedback is given and received. But it is also as important to write explicitly those company values, in an Employee Handbook or a Code of Conduct. This ensures that misbehaviors such as bullying, sexism or discrimination will be seriously addressed. Those rules should apply as principles to the hiring or promotion of employees, guaranteeing a space of inclusion for all, with clear incentives and punishments in case of discrimination. 

Transitioning from the Learner stage to the Contributor stage involves empowering individuals to voice their opinions and ask questions, not merely to pursue validation from others, but to seek learning. This can be achieved with leading by example. As a leader, it's important to remain open to learning, encourage others to ask questions and accept mistakes. When mistakes are made, it's crucial to own them publicly, which provides a model for others to follow. Walking the talk is an essential part of leadership. This involves openly sharing your own mistakes, displaying honesty and authenticity, and showing vulnerability by discussing uncomfortable topics. 

Furthermore, it's important to foster a company culture that encourages learning from mistakes at all levels. This can be achieved through regular team retrospectives usually run by the producer, post-mortem sessions when a project/initiative failed, and sharing the learnings in an all-hands presentation presented by any member of the team, and not only by the studio management.

Challenger, the final stage, is typically easier to reach once the foundations of psychological safety are established. However, it's important to facilitate the transformation of psychological safety into tangible business outcomes. A psychologically safe environment will encourage individuals to challenge the status quo, providing vital insights into the company's direction. 

It's valuable to remember that your position of power might make it uncomfortable for others to provide feedback directly, despite the feeling of safety within the company. Consider implementing anonymous pulse surveys, anonymous Ask Me Anything (AMA) sessions, or scheduled one-on-one meetings where the focus is on receiving feedback and listening, instead of justifying or reasoning the other party.

Lastly, it's important to delineate the responsibilities of the company versus the individual. Psychological safety extends beyond the psychological realm and encompasses factors such as physical space, financial security, job security, and mental safety. While it's crucial to focus on areas you can influence, it's equally important to set boundaries on what you can provide support for as an employer. 

Creating a safe and inclusive environment, providing clear long-term goals, and fostering a sense of belonging are all within your domain as a leader. However, remember that leaders aren't therapists or doctors. When personal challenges exceed their scope or responsibilities, they should provide professional resources or guidance to health professionals. A good practice is to provide employee benefits such as access to a health platform, therapist, and coaches. 

Each individual brings their own history and level of safety to your company. Your role isn't to rectify any imbalances but to enhance their feeling of safety from their starting point. If you manage to improve their sense of safety during their tenure at your company, you're already taking a step in the right direction. This journey is one of trial and error, but it's one worth undertaking.

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