It’s been estimated that we spend one-third—or about 90,000 hours—of our lives at work.
With this type of time commitment, it’s imperative to find a workplace that not only supports your career goals, but also makes you feel safe. Or in other words, finding an employer who chooses to make psychological safety a priority.
What is psychological safety?
The term “psychological safety” was first made popular in a 1999 paper by Amy Edmonson from Harvard University. According to Edmonson’s paper, psychological safety is “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”
While Edmonson’s paper was focused specifically on the dynamics of safety within a team, the conversation around psychological safety and its need to filter throughout the entire workplace has grown significantly over the past 10 years.
Safety isn’t about only feeling comfortable within your team to speak up or take a risk—it’s about not having to change the core of who you are to perform your job. That you can bring your full self to work.
“It’s feeling safe, that whatever you do, there is a safety and a protection that is not going to jeopardize your position, your comp, your title, etcetera,” says Chief People Officer Sol Alberione. “It’s that you’re not compromising your values.”
According to a recent McKinsey study, 89% of employees said that psychological safety in the workplace is essential. Not only is a safe and trustworthy work environment what employees want but it also produces strong results. And a 2017 neurological study found that companies who intentionally created a high-trust environment saw a 50% increase in productivity, 40% less burnout, and 74% less stress.
But the question remains: how can companies ensure psychological safety at work?
The term “psychological safety” is broad, so it can be difficult to know how to put it into practice.
At Giant Machines, we aim to interweave psychological safety throughout all aspects of our company, including our culture, leadership, recruiting, and training. We understand that the feeling of support, transparency, and safety needs to filter through all aspects of the company for it to be successful.
How GM instills psychological safety from day one
From the first touch of communication with Giant machines, we want to ensure psychological safety. This starts during the recruiting process, where we communicate with a human-first approach at every step of interviews, calls, and offers. It only gets better from there.
We made an effort to improve our onboarding through NETO, or New Employee Training and Onboarding. With collaboration across engineers and the Learn team, we created a robust and thoughtful 5-week curriculum for new engineering hires.
Psychological safety was interwoven throughout the NETO process, specifically in three ways:
- The NETO team incorporated the overarching Giant Machines mentality of bringing in people from different backgrounds while still supporting growth as a team. This guiding principle meant that new hires could work together while building their own confidence in their individual roles.
- We requested consistent feedback, adjusting daily based on the needs of the new hires. This ensured that no one felt disregarded or excluded as they moved through the curriculum.
- The NETO team also encouraged the trainees to help each other if someone was falling behind. This led to a feeling of safety for these employees through camaraderie, encouragement, and support.
NETO was ultimately successful by creating a sense of confidence and emotional wellbeing across the board. 100 percent of NETO hires reported that they know exactly what was expected of them after five weeks, up from 30% at the beginning of their onboarding.
“The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. People really did feel like they got something out of it, that their confidence grew. They felt that if they were placed on a project the next day, they wouldn’t be drowning,” says Software Engineer and NETO Co-Lead Johnny Araujo. “That psychological preparation is integral to their ability to succeed once they’re actually in a role.”
Software engineer Liz Meeker, who was part of the NETO program, says she had a heavy dose of impostor syndrome starting at Giant Machines, wondering if she belonged here and if she’d make a mistake.
“One thing I learned right away was that basically everyone has those feelings,” she says. “I was expecting to be thrown in the deep end and told good luck, but that was not the case at all.”
An important aspect of NETO’s success is that it not only creates psychological safety during the onboarding process, but it also feeds that feeling of safety back into other areas of the company, including the recruiting and hiring process, cross-team collaboration, and individual growth at Giant Machines.
For example, the positive results we saw with NETO encourages our long standing goal of hiring people with different backgrounds, strengths, and personalities. NETO shows us that we have the support in house to get new hires where they need to be to contribute meaningfully to projects.
“I think the overall objective is to ensure that nobody feels intimidated by the project that they’re placed on and they’re all eager to learn and take on harder and [increasingly] complex work” Johnny continues. “We also speak with their team leads and across the board they all get glowing reviews, so that’s also a positive indicator as far as their ability to contribute.”
Ensuring psychological safety from the top-down
Psychological safety is about creating an environment where people feel comfortable answering honestly when asked how they’re doing at work. Without creating space for these human-based emotions—like stress, anxiety, and concern—then the work environment is not inherently safe for employees. And while anxiety may always exist for certain employees, specifically those learning technologies, the environment must foster a sense of safety.
“Because I’m a new programmer, I learn new technologies with some trepidation,” Liz says. “But when it comes to the sense of belonging and community and culture at GM, that is psychological safety.
From the top-down, it’s all about reflecting on the environment that’s being created.
“One of the ways that you know you have a psychologically safe environment is when people feel comfortable being vulnerable around each other because you’re not going to be vulnerable with somebody you don’t trust,” Johnny explains. “So, we try to make it a habit to reflect and ask: What are we doing well? Where do we need more support? How do we look for the resources that can put us in a position to feel better?”
At Giant Machines, we encourage creating space to express thoughts and feelings. We use the terms “grows and glows” in our meetings, which encourages employees to talk openly about their experiences—good or bad. We also perform weekly check-ins where people can raise red flags or concerns about projects, clients, or any other issues.
“We provide various touchpoints for people to share how they’re feeling and that’s only effective because sharing your feelings is normalized,” Johnny explains.
When expressing feelings is normalized—or better yet, encouraged—employees will only continue to thrive because they know they are being supported, protected, and heard.
We want our employees to rely on their managers and each other, knowing that they aren’t expected to achieve everything completely on their own.
“The strength is in collaboration, in confiding in one another to help us understand our areas of weakness and give us strategies for how to grow from them,” says Johnny.
How GM keeps psychological safety top of mind
More than ever, employees are asking for more from their employers—far beyond ping pong tables and cold brew on tap. Giant Machines is committed to creating space for their employees to not only succeed in their career goals but to feel safe asking for help in all areas of their work life.
“Even if I’m anxious about how well I’ll do with a project or new tech, I have the knowledge that the people I work with are more than willing to help me learn the new technology or get better at a project or aid me in any way,” Liz says. “I have no worries that someone will be upset with me or say something awful to me. I have full confidence that would never happen ever.”
Importantly, we aim to use our three pillars—Innovate, Build, and Learn—to not only create meaningful products but also a workplace that cares about their employees’ wellbeing.
This doesn’t end with creating a platform for speaking up but extends to working to resolve the issues.
As Johnny explains, “If we don’t do that, then they’re going to lose confidence in us and our ability to make them feel safe. We can’t just give the platform, we have to be responsive as well.”