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Is your school an emotionally safe place for your teachers?

Mark Samways, Director – Wellbeing, The Free Spirit Collective, explains how to build psychologically safe schools for teachers in this high-stakes era when they are expected to be agile and innovative

According to a McKinsey global survey in 2021, 40% of employees stated that they are at least somewhat likely to leave their current job in the next 3–6 months. What was important to these same employees? To feel valued by their manager and organisation, having caring and trusting teammates, and a sense of belonging, which all fall under the category of ‘Psychological Safety’.

What is psychological safety?

 If we look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, safety is a basic need – if this need is left unmet, it can have serious consequences on our health, both mental and physical, and Maslow says that if the need of safety is unfulfilled, posttraumatic stress may occur. 

The notion of ‘Psychological Safety’ was coined by Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School. She defines Psychological Safety as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” Establishing a climate of psychological safety allows space for people to speak up and share their ideas, it’s being confident that vulnerability is welcomed in your organisation. Edmondson and Harvard Business School professor Jeff Polzer says that when it comes to creating psychologically safe environments, establishing norms is critical to success and participation. Psychological safety is linked to trust. Zak (2017) found that respondents in high-trust organisations had 106% more energy, were 76% more engaged at work, and were 50% more productive. A high-trust culture was found to improve how people treat one another and themselves, as 40% experience less burnout and 41% felt a greater sense of accomplishment.

Similar to mental health, psychological safety has a common misconception that it will automatically appear in a reasonable healthy environment and that the absence of harassment creates psychological safety. When in reality, both require consistent care and nurturing, they are not self-sufficient and ignore them at your own risk. 

Psychologically safe work environments are in fact quite rare but not impossible. 

When it comes to a school environment, the gravity of the need is clear, both staff and students alike are encouraged to be agile and innovative, such qualities become very challenging in environments where the individual feels unsafe. To allow the freedom of innovation and exploration, individuals and groups need to feel safe to fail, safe to make mistakes and safe to take accountability for things that haven’t quite gone as expected. Without that, we see a very stiff and scared group that will not step outside the parameters that have been set and you’ll notice a robotic-like culture sweep across the organisation. 

Levels of psychological safety

Per Hugander describes three levels of Psychological safety:


Benefits of improving psychological safety

The research behind psychologically safe work environments is quite compelling, here are some of the reasons that you should make it a top priority:

  1. Boosts team performance 
  2. Improves employee wellbeing
  3. Enhances employee engagement
  4. Fosters an inclusive workplace culture
  5. Inspires creativity and ideas. 
  6. Creates brand ambassadors
  7. Reduces employee turnover

How to improve psychological safety

Psychological safety revolves around workplace culture, setting the example from the top is really helpful. For leaders, speaking out is actually less important than how we react and respond to other team members. Modelling vulnerability will go a long way to enabling others to feel safe to step outside the normal parameters. 

How we respond to others quickly sets the tone – if an employee feels embarrassed or shamed when raising an idea or posing a question, this quickly sends a message to all other employees that it’s not safe and will shut others off from speaking out.

Psychological safety takes work both as individuals and as part of a team, therefore specific training and coaching for individuals and teams is imperative. There is no easy or quick fix solution, it takes continual dedication to keep things on track but as we’ve seen, the investment is totally worth it. Creating a coaching culture helps you stay curious and inquisitive rather than stuck and closed off. Also, by incorporating the coaching culture, you enable employees to fine tune critical skills such as active listening, paraphrasing and summarising, empathy and asking the appropriate questions to elicit further information. 

It all comes back to the values that we set; yes, we can have a mission statement and a set of organisational values but how does that transpose into the day-to-day running of the school? If we value trust and respect, what does that look like on a daily basis? Even the notion of defining trust is a difficult one and definitions may vary between employees. What happens when trust gets broken? 

Some of the things you will start to notice when psychological safety is improving is that employees will discuss ideas, they may even disagree more than they previously did. You’ll also notice more feedback being given both positive and negative, along with individuals sharing when things aren’t going well and asking for support. 

Ultimately isn’t this what any of us want? A safe, enjoyable place of work that enables us to grow both personally and professionally and supports us along the way, failures and all.

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