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4 Stages of Psychological Safety and How They Can Improve Retention

4 Stages of Psychological Safety and How They Can Improve Retention

In the days of the Great Resignation, ensuring employees feel psychologically safe has become more important than ever. HR professionals considering how to increase retention can check if they meet the criteria of a high-trust company—defined as one in which employees feel comfortable and valued in their organization.   

In a Harvard Business Review study on trust, employees reported “4% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, [and] 40% less burnout” in high-trust companies compared to low-trust companies. Comfort and value are two themes of psychological safety, and the numbers show they can improve retention rates.  

Here is a breakdown of psychological safety and the four methods for promoting it in your organization. 


Psychological Safety: What Is It? 

Psychological safety is a term used to describe whether team members feel comfortable voicing their thoughts within their work setting. Teams that feel psychologically safe are willing to voice and accept the thoughts and ideas of others on their team without fear of criticism or rejection.  

This is not just the interpersonal communication between team members, but also between leaders, other departments, and external stakeholders. Fostering a sense of comfort and community in the larger organization reinforces the safety present in smaller teams.  

For the employer or employee, maintaining a psychologically safe attitude can inspire others in the organization to interact similarly with one another. Learning about psychological safety and how it affects team members can also educate HR professionals on how to build trust in their organization.   

Improving retention is a key goal of any HR expert. Meet this goal by investigating if employees feel psychological safety at your organization. According to the Harvard Business Review study, managers can build trust and improve retention by recognizing excellence and actively listening. 


The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety 

In his book The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation, Oxford researcher Timothy Clark outlines the stages through which organizations can develop a safer workplace:

  1. Inclusion safety is feeling acceptance for basic personality traits. 
  2. Learner safety is confidence that peers understand mistakes are made during learning processes.  
  3. Contributor safety is knowing contributions to the team are valued, respected, and advance objectives. 
  4. Challenger safety protects people from retaliation for voicing concerns or suggesting improvements.     

To achieve a psychologically safe work environment, people must feel accepted and valued while also accepting and valuing others. Communicating with these stages in mind can improve an employee’s feeling of well-being on their team and within their organization.  


Encouraging Safety Can Improve Retention  

As some organizations move toward hybrid or remote work, they are presented with changes to commonplace office culture—like increasingly casual dress codes—but listening to your team and leaders can help you move forward.   

A two-fold approach may help you adapt to these changes: consider approaching employees from both a personal level and an organizational level.   

First, there is less face-to-face interaction than ever before, meaning some managers may be letting psychological safety fall by the wayside. Managers may need to take a more hands-on approach to ensure their employees are continuing to foster a safe work environment, like weekly 1:1 meetings between managers and their direct reports.

A brief check-in can assure employees that their work is valued and their contributions are helpful and pertinent to the team’s objectives. Use positive, action-oriented wording to remind people of their duty to respect themselves and others.   

Second, a mission statement can send positive reinforcement to all branches of an organization. Mission statements outline the ethics, values, and goals of an organization that employees can reflect on to feel camaraderie with their peers. Developing a culture where people share values can create common ground and help your diverse team flourish.  

Fostering psychological safety is a people-focused strategy that promotes acceptance, accountability, and mutual respect among the different players within an organization. Increased attention to employee well-being can help HR experts boost retention by cultivating a culture of trust. 


Additional Resources

You can stay informed, educated, and up-to-date with important HR topics using BerniePortal’s comprehensive resources:

  • BerniePortal Blog—a one-stop-shop for HR industry news
  • HR Glossary—featuring the most common HR terms, acronyms, and compliance
  • HR Guides—essential pillars, covering an extensive list of comprehensive HR topics
  • BernieU—free online HR courses, approved for SHRM and HRCI recertification credit
  • HR Party of One—our popular YouTube series and podcast, covering emerging HR trends and enduring HR topics

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