Is Psychological Safety The Secret To Having A Happy Workforce?

31st January 2023
Psychological Safety The Secret To Having A Happy Workforce

When company owners or managers are asked what they do to make their team happy, they often list their perks: flexibility, remote working, more holidays etc.; just Google “How do you create a happy workforce” and see the results. I have no doubt that these policies will make some, or even all, of their team members happier; however, by themselves, these benefits will not make your team genuinely happy. You just have to look at the many companies who offer all those great benefits, coupled with massive salaries, and yet their staff are miserable regardless.

So, if an endless list of benefits is not the secret to creating a happy workforce, what is?

Our basic needs and what motivates us

In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, he states that after your basic physiological needs (food, shelter, sleep), the needs for security and safety become salient. This may be job security, social stability and freedom of fear. 

In the workplace a part of your safety needs is the need to feel safe to express your views; to feel safe to ask questions, voice your opinion or even suggest ideas without being laughed at or chastised. This is called psychological safety. 

According to Maslow’s theory, as human beings, we are motivated by our needs, and if some of our most important needs are unmet, we may be unable to progress and meet our other needs further up the hierarchy. For example, before we can address our needs of love and belonging, we need to have first addressed our need for safety. This may be why we sometimes feel unmotivated, because our needs lower down the hierarchy are not being fulfilled.

Psychological Safety

“Psychological safety is a condition in which you feel (1) included, (2) safe to learn, (3) safe to contribute, and (4) safe to challenge the status quo—all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalised, or punished in some way.” Timothy Clark – The four stages of Psychological Safety

The concept of psychological safety has been around since the 1960s, but it gained a lot of traction in 2012 when, after a 2-year study to find what made the perfect team, Google declared that psychological safety was the most important characteristic of  their most successful teams. 

Since the study, there has been a lot of focus on the importance of psychological safety in team performance, with hundreds of blog posts, podcasts and books dedicated to it.  Recently though, with the increase in focus on staff wellbeing, people are starting to see the importance of psychological safety, in the context of team happiness, as one of the basic needs you need to work on, in addition to needs such as motivation, recognition and connection.

Tony Latter, Co-Founder of The Happiness Index, explains that “safety is linked to the instinctive brain type. This means it’s part of our most primordial systems, linked to our fight or flight response in the basal region of our brains.” Just as your fight and flight response is able to override your ability to think rationally (see our article on The Chimp Paradox), your innate requirement for a feeling of safety can be so powerful that it overrides your ability to process other brain functions. Simply put, he argues that If you don’t feel safe you can’t feel happy.  He concluded that “When people don’t feel psychologically safe, their brain stays permanently on high alert. Not only is this exhausting for the individual, leading to potential burnout and mental illness, it can also have huge effects on team dynamics and morale.” Whilst it may not be so clear cut that happiness is completely dependent on feeling safe, it is definitely an important factor.

While many companies are looking at improving psychological safety in their teams to help improve their performance, building a company culture with psychological safety at its core may actually have a much deeper significance. By focusing on building psychological safety, companies are laying the foundations for a happier workforce, one where a part of their basic need for safety is met, one where they can then address other needs such as motivation, recognition and respect, all of which are necessary components of happy teams.

So, before you sit down and plan out your ambitious benefits plan and install the new table football in your office, it may be sensible to first make sure your team feels safe. 
There are many tools out there which can help you measure psychological safety, and many guides on how to build it in your teams, we’ve even shared our own process on our blog – Our 3-step process to building psychological safety in teams.

If you’re interested in how we’ve built our happiness-first culture as well as how we’re continually challenging ourselves to make a happier company, please follow us on LinkedIn to get regular updates on our progress, and, if you’re curious as to how far we’d go at Secret Source to keep our team happy, check out the interview with our founder on The Karmic Capitalist podcast.