It’s no surprise that as a digital employee communication platform, we think a lot about what creates the right conditions for meaningful two-way conversations in the workplace. One critical component is psychological safety – without it, even the best tools in the world won’t get you the kind of feedback and engagement you want from your deskless and frontline employees. 

To understand the concept of psychological safety and how you can build it with your frontline workers, we spoke with Laura Delizonna, PhD., a Stanford University instructor, internationally renowned speaker, author, and executive coach. She is an expert in psychological safety, optimal team performance, leadership effectiveness, and wellbeing, and has worked with companies like Google, Tommy Hilfiger, and Disney. 

We sat down with Dr. Delizonna to talk about psychological safety with deskless and frontline workers, fostering employee feedback channels, and more. 

What does the concept of psychological safety in the workplace mean?

Laura Delizonna: Psychological safety is the unconscious answer to what I believe is an evolutionary based question: “Are you for me or against me?” In other words, as an employee, if I don’t show up in an ideal way, if I make a minor flub or am not 100% perfect, will there be excessive negative consequences for me?

At a basic level, when psychological safety is failing, employees will begin to believe that there will be explicit or implicit negative repercussions for expressing an opinion, voicing opposition, or making a minor mistake or error. Negative consequences can be explicit (for example, not getting promoted), but often it’s more implicit, for example, through competence being quietly questioned.

The flip side (when psychological safety is present) is feeling appreciated and valued. Sometimes that part gets left out. Psychological safety is more than just believing that bad things won’t happen: it’s actually believing that there is a welcoming of opinions, perspectives and vulnerabilities.

Why are organizations starting to pay more attention to creating psychological safety?

While the term may be new, I think most people when they hear the definition of psychological safety find the idea very familiar. Psychological safety is an invisible force that exists in all relationships. But organizations are now focusing more on psychological safety because we are in an economy of success that requires more input from multiple voices. To succeed requires diversity of thought and breakthrough innovation.

“We are in an economy of success that requires more input from multiple voices. To succeed requires diversity of thought and breakthrough innovation.”

Back in the days when we could just work harder to boost a business, for example on a production line, there wasn’t the same need for psychological safety. You just needed an action to be completed. 

But now, we’re looking for more than just specific actions to be completed: we’re in an idea economy. Success is created in almost every company by bringing in creative thoughts around how to do things, when to do things. Companies realize that when they’re tackling complex problems in an error dependent environment, employees need to be encouraged to speak up.  

The equation for success in today’s workplaces is that success happens in interdependent complex contexts. Our work is becoming more complex, we’re working cross-culturally, we’re solving wicked problems, we’re conducting agile rapid learning experiments… All these factors mean organizations need psychological safety. 

Traditionally, organizations might have viewed their frontline workers precisely as part of a production line. Why is it important to build psychological safety for frontline workers?

Frontline workers have access to an incredible amount of data and information about the customer or client that leadership does not. Leadership will likely rarely talk to customers directly, but frontline workers know what the customer needs, wants, what their pain points are, what’s frustrating to them, how the company is not serving them (or not serving them well). 

All this information really serves leadership. If managers and leaders are not gathering employee feedback, they are making decisions and creating policies and systems without being informed. Whenever a question like “What can we do better?” or “What do our employees need in order to serve our customers better?” arises, frontline workers have the answers. 

Even with questionnaires or market research, leaders would be foolish to ignore the insight that their frontline workers have. Otherwise, they’re making decisions that are at best uneducated guesses. There’s just such a greater wealth of qualitative information when you ask your frontline workers in service industries and customer service lines for their input. 

How can organizations build psychological safety for its frontline workers? 

When you’re seeking upward feedback, you have to reward the messenger.

For example, if a customer service rep brings bad news, says “I need X” or “Y isn’t working,” then that has to be welcomed. Coming forward with feedback can’t be harmful. Frontline workers aren’t stupid. They’re not going to say things that are going to be poorly received, or have negative consequences for them. They’ll stay silent.

“Frontline workers aren’t stupid. They’re not going to say things that are going to be poorly received, or have negative consequences for them. They’ll stay silent.”

Or worse, if frontline workers feel unappreciated or sour as a result of how management has responded to their feedback, they might take it out on the customer, or become disengaged from the company. Organizations need to remember that frontline workers are your representatives, representing the company, its norms, its values. This is important: you have to set up frontline workers so that they can bring their best. Their emotional states, their mood, their happiness, their feeling of being appreciated, all this matters. When you can do this, frontline workers feel like part of the team, not the machine. 

That’s part one: putting employees first and enabling the employee to feel proud of their role and their company, feel loyal and willing to go above and beyond, able to tolerate difficult situations. 

The other part is, how do you make it safe for these workers to give their input?

For this, there has to be air cover for candor. You have to make sure the bearer of bad news isn’t punished. Leaders need to recognize it’s a very dangerous place to be in for frontline workers to be criticizing a system – because people, including managers, can take feedback personally. Nobody wants to be seen as the problem, and that’s why employee feedback can only happen when there’s enough psychological safety for the workers.

What steps can leaders take to show upward feedback is welcome?

Words aren’t enough; talk is cheap. Employees have to have proof that there won’t be negative consequences or repercussions for pointing out a problem. 

One thing I’ve encountered is that the person who points out a problem can often be blamed. Managers attribute the problem to the employee, saying, “Well, you’re having a problem because you’re not performing well enough.” This is one of the subtle but most ubiquitous ways that feedback gets blocked in an organization: the receiver attributes it to a problem with the individual, rather than looking at the system or considering where change might be needed. 

So, first of all, leaders need to lead the way. Leaders are asking workers to be vulnerable by bringing forth negative feedback, opposition, or mistakes, but they often don’t start with themselves. The leader has to say, “This is how I have messed up…” or “This is what I have noticed…” or “I don’t know the solution, I need your help.” This shows that the leader is willing to undertake some emotional exposure, to experience uncertainty, too. 

Most leaders refuse to do this, because they’re also afraid to be seen as weak or incompetent. But there’s always a way that leaders can do this.  For example, leaders can acknowledge the complexity of the current environment (“We’ve never been here before”) or call for knowledge they don’t have (“You’re on the frontline, I’m not”) or appeal to a shared vision or purpose (“we need to figure this out together.”)

Leaders must also be willing to share their own errors and mistakes. Maybe it’s negative press or board feedback: but if leaders can show that they can make and own their mistakes, it sends the signal that mistakes, feedback and learning are welcome at all levels in the organization. 

What are some mistakes that organizations make when seeking upward feedback that can diminish psychological safety?

How leaders respond to feedback is critical. Everyone in the organization is watching and paying attention to whether someone gets reprimanded, ignored, or dismissed when they give feedback. 

There are three responses that can play out when feedback is given. 

  • Turning against: When the person giving feedback gets blamed and criticised.
  • Turning away: When feedback is dismissed, not responded to, talked over, or ignored.
  • Turning towards: When the feedback is received with curiosity and appreciation. In this situation, the leader says, “Oh, thank you. Tell me more.” 

Leaders have to make sure they are turning towards feedback. Whenever they turn away or turn against feedback it will silence any additional feedback for the entire group, not just for that person. Anyone who has witnessed or been told secondhand about a negative response to  feedback will be discouraged from sharing their own feedback in the future. 

However, it’s worth noting that asking for feedback does not necessarily mean you have to implement it. I’ve heard leaders say they don’t want to ask for feedback because they’re not sure what will happen if they ask for input and then decide not to use it. It is okay to ask but not implement input or feedback. The key is to thank employees for the input/feedback and explicitly acknowledge that the input is not being acted upon but that it was considered. It can go a long way to explain the decision making process: why and what variables were at play in making the final decision. Then people feel respected, and heard rather than dismissed, which diminishes psychological safety.

Another consideration is that the whole organization needs to be on board; turning toward feedback has to be part of your culture. Negative repercussions don’t just come from senior leadership, they could come from the store manager, or another cashier. Nobody’s going to do anything that’s going to hurt their chances for promotion, advancement. Nobody wants to risk being seen as incompetent or unlikeable. 

“It’s like your brain and your mind is scanning, constantly saying, ‘Don’t get killed, don’t get killed, don’t get killed.’ And a negative comment is the sabertooth tiger in the modern day workplace.”

Remember, we are social animals. We read micro-expressions: a manager can say exactly the same words, but even a slightly negative tone or facial expression can change the whole meaning of an interaction. Reading these subtle and unconscious social cues constantly is wired into our brains. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s like your brain and your mind is scanning, constantly saying, “Don’t get killed, don’t get killed, don’t get killed.” And a negative comment is the sabertooth tiger in the modern day workplace.

If a leader knows that their organization has a history of shooting the messenger or ignoring feedback, how can they turn the culture around?

You must repair harm to improve the future. 

I think of these as “regrettable incidents”– over time we will all have harmful responses and reactions that can damage a relationship. And when a regrettable incident occurs and there’s some kind of relationship rupture, you must repair it. 

Most people will say something like, “I know there have been problems, we’re going to do better in the future.” But that’s weak: it doesn’t have an emotional impact and it doesn’t prove anything. It isn’t convincing. 

Instead, I advise leaders to practise the “three Rs.” 

The first R is responsibility. Leaders need to take specific responsibility for what’s gone wrong by saying, “I take responsibility for this action that created this harm.” 

The second R is remorse. Leaders need to show regret, say sorry, acknowledge that they want to do better. In some circumstances (when appropriate), it may be important for leaders to offer up greater degrees of emotional exposure, saying things like “I feel bad for how this happened” or “I’m embarrassed, “ or “This was unacceptable.” 

The final R is recommit. When a leader realizes that they haven’t responded well or haven’t listened as well as they should have, the next step is to recommit. Leaders need to show that they are ready to listen and must share specific actions that are going to be taken in the future–and acknowledge specific mistakes that are not going to be made again. For example by saying, “I’m not going to do that again, instead I’m going to do X.”

Leaders need to immediately take action on the new plan, even if it’s something token or a small step in the right direction. In a recent executive coaching session I had with a CEO I told them they had to take action that day. And so the CEO sent out an anonymous survey that same day, as soon as the town hall was over, to gather opinions. That starts to walk the talk immediately. People have some sense that maybe this time there’s actually going to be a real change. 

Because remember, if you promise but don’t follow through, then there is no belief that your repair will be valid. You’ll lose credibility. Employees are used to “promises, promises” from management, but not seeing the action taken. This builds resentment and actually degrades the situation further. You have to make an effective repair. 

What’s your biggest takeaway for how to build psychological safety?

The main thing is to be curious and give ample appreciation. When receiving feedback, say, “Thank you, that must have been difficult to say. Tell me more.” Ask people for examples, acknowledge that they’ve raised something valuable that you hadn’t thought of before. Make it clear that you’re ready to hear more from the person giving you feedback, that it is welcome. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. We’re grateful to Dr. Delizonna for speaking with us, and acknowledge that her participation in this Q&A does not represent an endorsement of Nudge’s products and services. Find out more about Laura Delizonna’s work at delizonna.com