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Psychological Safety is the Master Key that Unlocks Employee Engagement

If you want to create a positive company or team culture, one in which employees actively engage, bringing their best selves to work, you must understand the organizing principles that determine people’s sense of psychological safety at work, as this is a powerful driver of performance in every workplace and in every team.

In his ground-breaking study, William Kahn of Boston University identified the three psychological conditions that encourage employees to engage their full selves in their work:

1. Meaning: “People experienced meaningfulness when they felt worthwhile, useful, and valuable-as though they made a difference and were not taken for granted.”

2. Safety: People experienced safety as the ability “to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences to self-image, status, or career” and “people felt safe in situations in which they trusted that they would not suffer for their personal engagement.”

3. Availability: People experienced psychological availability when they sensed they had “the physical, emotional, or psychological resources to personally engage at a particular moment.” Availability “measures how ready people are to engage, given the distractions they experience as members of social systems.”

Understanding these conditions for optimal employee engagement is a relatively simple task. Creating them for your team, however, proves far more complicated. Why? The answer comes down to brain function.

Bad is Stronger Than Good

At a fundamental level the brain is constantly asking itself, “Am I safe?”. As David Rockexplains, “much of our motivation driving social behavior is governed by an overarching organizing principle of minimizing threat and maximizing reward.” In short, we often think and behave in the workplace in ways far more primal than we recognize.

For example, imagine that Jenna, a team manager, says to a team member, Nico, “Will you step into the conference room for a moment? I have some feedback for you.”

These words trigger a fear response in Nico, as they would in many people, stirring up questions, such as, “What did I do wrong? Am I going to be fired?” In no time, Nico is making up some pretty powerful stories to explain to himself what might happen. By the time he enters the conference room, he’s defended, locked in fight-or-flight mode, having disengaged from his true self until he can answer that pervasive question, “Am I safe?”.

Jenna may be a well-meaning manager hopeful to open up a productive conversation with Nico, but basic brain function is working against her. When assessing a perceived threat, the brain is much more receptive to danger than reward, more likely to consider potential bad outcomes than good.

As Roy F. Baumeister and his colleagues suggest, “it is evolutionarily adaptive for bad to be stronger than good.” This innate response has a downside in the workplace: it’s much easier for leaders unwittingly to trigger a negative reaction in an employee than a positive one.

When organizations or managers take actions that generate a threat response, those actions have dramatic implications for how engaged and involved their employees stay in the moment, how they perceive their relationships with people in the organization, and how they perceive the unspoken Psychological Contract, or the sense of “Are we even?” in the level of trust, between themselves and the company. Violate this psychological contract, the sense of evenness in the bargain, and you may never fully get the employee ‘psychologically back’.

This can happen, for example, if an organization announces a change in policies, benefits, or compensation, or if employees hear rumors about a layoff or merger. Managers can also create this effect in their teams, such as by not paying attention, or mishandling important feedback, or perhaps by always turning to their favorites first.

David Rock suggests leaders can learn to “minimize the easily activated threat responses and maximize engaged states of mind.” His SCARF model identifies the observable ways in which the brain perceives external stimuli, triggering the fight-or-flight response, in five areas:

Category:           Psychological Questions:                           Threat Trigger:

Status                 Where do I sit in the hierarchy?               Perceived reduction in status
How much influence do I have?

Certainty           What can I expect?                                      Perceived uncertainty
Can I predict what will happen?
Is my truth affirmed here?

Autonomy         Can I control my environment?                Perceived loss of freedom/control
Am I free to make choices?

Relatedness      Am I included in the social group?           Perceived isolation or ostracism
Do I belong?

Fairness            Is the deal fair?                                             Perceived inequity or unfairness

Using the SCARF model, leaders can help reduce negative triggers and increase positive triggers, enhancing their employees’ sense of psychological safety and their level of engagement at work. However, not all employees are built alike. Though many company cultures operate as though one size fits all, in reality, one size fits one. This is why we at Oxegen Consulting encourage managers to personalize their interactions with each member of their team, building a individualized hypothesis for each person in the team.

Build the Muscle of Noticing

Take time to understand every person on your team, on a psychological level, so you can manage to their style and the situation. Become a social scientist, observing each team member with the following questions in mind:

The Personal Dimension: What are your personal values? What are your communication preferences? How do you like to give or receive feedback? How you like to show up in meetings? What are your triggers, positive or negative?

The Cultural Dimension: How you organize yourself? How do you like to work? Where do you like to work? How do you like to have fun or engage at work?

The Work Dimension: How do I leverage your strengths? How do we make decisions on this team? What expectations do I have of you and your contributions to the team? What do you need from me?

If you’re not used to managing this way, developing a hypothesis for each employee may seem like more work than it’s worth. But consider this: according to Gallup, it takes four actively-engaged employees to counteract the psychological drag of one disengaged employee. So the stakes are very high, if we ignore this powerful psychological dimension.

Managers are a Force Multiplier

No matter how you choose to manage, your behaviors will have a multiplying effect on your team. If you manage based on your own sense of what would work for you, or if you manage to the needs of only one or two people on your team, you’re creating a Psychological Contract that will fail to motivate the majority of your team. So pay great attention to the shadow you cast, because the manager will always trump the brand.

It’s largely up to you: do you want to multiply effects that lead to employee disengagement and discord? Or do you want to multiply effects that foster a sense of psychological well-being and therefore increase your employees’ contributions to your team?

Oxegen Consulting LLC is a management consulting company, based in Palo Alto California, specializing in People Strategy, Leadership Coaching & Development, Learning Programs and Consulting.   Our work is focused on the start-up community in the tech, financial and life sciences sectors. You can reach us at info@oxegenconsulting.com and at facebook.com/oxegensiliconvalley.

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