Dr. Andrea Hollingsworth
Hollingsworth Consulting

Sometimes it’s easy to spot psychologically unsafe work environments. Someone recently posted this on one of my husband’s social media platforms:

Now there’s a fair chance this is a joke and/or completely fake. (Such things are known to happen on social media, alas.) Whatever the case, occasionally a lack of psychological safety is glaringly obvious. Assuming it’s real, and not an employee restroom in an onion factory, this signage would certainly be a case in point.

More often though, lack of psychological safety is hard to pin down. As I stated in my last newsletter, it’s marked by a subtle feeling of unpredictability and emotional threat. You hold back your thoughts, queries, and emotions because you’re pretty sure there would be negative consequences if you expressed them.

Ask yourself: Is work a place where I can show up as me? Where I can freely share my concerns, ideas, questions, and mistakes? Can I take creative risks at work? Can I count on receiving support when I’m overwhelmed or confused? Do I have, as Amy Edmondson puts it, “felt permission for candor”?

In psychologically safe work environments, people are more engaged, more motivated. They know their personhood and ideas are valued, so they lean in and speak up. Diverse perspectives are freely offered, which means better decisions and problem-solving. People continuously learn and improve because it’s okay to make mistakes and learn from them.

Two weeks ago, I described the first five core elements of psychological safety: Consistency, clarity, boundaries, self-management, and directness. Let’s look at another five.

Core Elements of Psychological Safety, Part 2

  1. Compassion: Psychological safety involves knowing you are seen, understood, and supported – especially when you’re stressed or struggling. In compassionate cultures, people can count on empathy and advocacy when they’re suffering. In such an environment, everyone senses that, “this is a place where it’s okay to be fully human.”
  2. Equity: It takes work to cultivate equity — that is, fair, balanced, and consistent expectations, opportunities, and treatment for all. Humans very easily slip into in-group/out-group relational dynamics. “Parochial empathy” — that is, showing favor and kindness toward those most like you, to the exclusion of others — breeds suspicion and hinders belonging. Psychologically safe environments require ongoing correction of inequitable relationships, systems, and structures.
  3. Feedback: It can create a lot of insecurity when you don’t know how your work is being received. On the other hand, you feel confident when you can see the results of your efforts. If you’re a manager, regularly show team members what they’ve accomplished. Recognize them and thank them for it! And when work falls short of expectations, or if someone makes a mistake, then communicate that with candor, too. Be curious rather than blaming. Model a learning mindset by asking them what they learned, and what the next steps might be. Then assure them that you’re their supporter and ally as they seek continual improvement.
  4. Resonance: Interpersonal neurobiologists talk about “emotional resonance” as a baseline for mental health and wellness. Emotional resonance is key to psychological safety, and it can be cultivated in the workplace (and elsewhere) through simple listening practices. For example: Don’t multitask. Ask open-ended questions. Mirror the person’s tone and pace. Don’t equate their experience with yours. And listen with the intent to understand rather than to reply/retort.
  5. Grace: When there’s a culture of negativity, perfectionism, self-criticism, and blame, no one feels safe – even within their own minds. Fear of failure hinders connection, creativity, productivity, innovation, adaptability, resilience, and overall performance. Aim to cultivate a culture of self-compassion and grace for others. When a mistake is made, allow it to be a pit stop for learning and growth before getting right back on track.

In a world where many are wounded and “running on fumes,” building a culture of psychological safety can be tricky. It’s a skill-building journey that requires intentionality. If you’re interested in getting support for your organization on that journey, I hope you’ll be in touch!

About Andrea

Dr. Andrea Hollingsworth is Founder and CEO of Hollingsworth Consulting, author of the bestselling book The Compassion Advantage (2024), and one of today’s leading global experts on compassionate leadership. Since 2008, she has been studying, speaking, and writing about the science and spirituality of human emotions and relationships. Her articles have been published more than a dozen times in peer-reviewed journals, and she has taught at prestigious institutions like Princeton, Boston University, and Loyola University Chicago. In addition, Dr. Andrea has delivered talks to audiences at some of the top-ranked universities in the world—including Cambridge University in England and Heidelberg University in Germany.

Dr. Andrea spends most of her time inspiring leaders and teams to use The Compassion Advantage to build supercharged organizations through cultures of care— especially in times of challenge and change. Andrea lives with her family in Minnesota where she cheers hard at her son’s soccer games and relishes every opportunity to visit the north shore of Lake Superior.