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Rosie Turner Feb 22, 2023 9:38:53 AM 2 min read

Psychological Safety & Employee Engagement: A chicken and egg situation?

Nearly all of our clients have established Employee Engagement programmes. A platform to measure it, a score, and a paragraph in the annual report - it has been the start point for ‘culture work’ for several years now across organisations of all sizes. What’s less common though are conversations around psychological safety and a strategy to develop this.

But have we got this the right way round? Research would suggest we’ve jumped the gun, and that by leaping to measure engagement, without properly considering psychological safety we’re missing a trick in getting to the behaviours/ outcomes that we want: the one that unlocks productivity, collaboration, innovation, retention and impacts the all important bottom line.

To explore this together, let’s take a quick look at the two core concepts:

  1. William Khan initially defines Employee Engagement as “expression”. It is active, and it’s the way that an individual holistically shows up and expresses themselves (emotionally, professionally, socially). We can see it as having three core components: Connection (to colleagues), Commitment (to the purpose) and the Contribution you’re able to make. Critically, it is directly correlated to productivity & retention (unlikely Employee Satisfaction, but that’s another post for another time)

  2. Timothy R Clark defines Psychological Safety as an ‘environment of rewarded vulnerability’ and creates a useful framework based on 4 Stages / a ‘Ladder of Vulnerability’ through which we progress: 1) Inclusion (safety to be ourselves), 2) Learning (safety to ask questions and learn), 3) Contribution (safety to input) and 4) Challenge (safety to speak up and challenge status quo).

The key thing here, is that research shows that there is a dominant pattern - a dominant causal pathway between these concepts. This isn’t a cryptic ‘chicken or egg’ quandary. Instead, we can clearly see that psychological safety is the environment which enables ‘expression’ / Employee Engagement and creates the outcomes that we are looking for - productivity, collaboration, creativity, wellbeing, retention!

This is interesting because organisations are typically pretty intentional about how they approach Employee Engagement, yet there is a lack of clarity and strategy around psychological safety - despite the fact that this is the foundational piece of the puzzle.

With all this in mind, let’s look at a few practical considerations and steps to nurture psychological safety:

  1. Be intentional - this will not happen by chance
  2. Realise that whilst communication is critical, psychological safety is not rehetoric and you can’t just talk it into being
  3. Focus on modelling vulnerability through your own behaviours and then rewarding it in others. Leaders have a particularly important role to play here.
  4. Build from the ground up: think back to the 4 stages in the ‘Ladder of Vulnerability’ and realise that you can’t jump to the last step (expecting people to speak up and challenge others). The risks are highest here, so we must first ensure that people feel safe being themselves, learning and contributing.

For more, here’s the podcast: