Event #3: Fostering Psychological Safety at Work

The 3rd GWS event of the year was held on Wednesday May 28 2018 atPerch in Rosebank. This event was different for a variety of reasons:

  • it was our first workshop format using case studies to develop solutions

  • the cases were drawn from the GWS community members’ own experiences

  • the community brought food and drink to share with one another

  • there was no power, so Perch made the space extra special with hundreds of candles

  • and we had one subject matter expert sharing research and insights at the beginning of the event.

For all of the above reasons this workshop, from the outset, was destined to be a mindset shifting evening, and this was further entrenched by the open-minded and thoughtful discussion from our diverse participants. The way the deeply sensitive subjects were treated on the evening proved to us at the GWS that when the conditions for people to feel psychologically safe are there, people can genuinely connect to find solutions. The following is a summary of the key insights shared by our keynote speaker, Jasmin Kooverjee, Principal Psychologist at Chris Hani Baragwanth Academic Hospital, as well as an overview of the cases shared by the group with some of the solutions that emerged to address the case challenges. The intention of this is to hopefully encourage more people to be mindful of their behaviours towards others and to understand that backgrounds and context’s shape peoples perceptions and responses.

Many people like what they do, but don’t like the conditions within which they do it.

Negative, or unsafe work environments have the potential to degrade ones humanity, and this in turn affects how individuals interact with society outside of the workplace, as parents, spouses and citizens.

At the GWS we believe that work affects society and communities in fundamental ways, and psychological safety is antecedent to good work. Therefore the first important thing to acknowledge is that individuals play multiple roles simultaneously: they are parents, siblings, teachers, students and employers, and they’re expected to play these roles at 100%, all the time. In addition as our expert shared, because this is a systemic view, something that affects one of these roles is going to ripple through and affect all of them, because different roles can’t be switched off.

Another important aspect to consider is that when it comes to the workplace, more often than not, people are expected to do the most with the least or fewest amount of resources.

As a result, you have individuals who are playing multiple roles stretched to beyond their capacity. One definition of psychologically safe environments is where an individual’s mind and body is functioning together optimally. It can be deduced therefore, that in environments where people are working at 110% with minimal resources, while still fulfilling the other roles in their lives it manifests in their bodies and mental well-being, with headaches, anxiety, lack of sleep, poor health, no time for fitness etc.

Contributing Factors to Psychological Safety

Jasmin shared 6 contributing factors that encourage psychological safety at work. She cautioned that everything in life is on a continuum, with too much or too little of one of these factors negatively affecting the workplace, and that these factors are useful only to the degree that they are in balance.

1. Autonomy:

Autonomy means you have independent behaviour and the ability to act in the way you believe is best for what you are trying to achieve. Autonomy means that individuals are allowed to have opinions, and to put forward solutions without fear of the negative consequences of speaking your mind.

2. Environmental Mastery:

This is actual a core skill in addressing depression. This comes from the belief that the individual is in control of their situation at work and can take advantage of opportunities. It comes from feeling that “I know what I’m doing and I feel like I am doing a good job of it.” The challenge often is that no-one rewards or acknowledges environmental mastery because there is the assumption that everyone should be doing a good job, all the time, because that is their job. *So just a note, even if someone is just doing their job, acknowledge it, it is critical to their wellbeing at work.

3. Personal Growth:

This is the ability to continuously improve as an individual, in order to do this however people need to have the ability to reflect and evaluate themselves, to understand were they need to be challenged to grow. People who are growing take on new challenges, and see their careers progressing as their skills broaden. It is in the DNA of humans to adapt and develop, so when there is stagnation or mundanity at work, its effects on an individual are incredibly negative.

4. Positive Relationships with Others:

Humans are by nature communal, so the ability to be able to meaningfully engage with others, based on empathy and affection, helps build relationships in the workplace. This creates the conditions which allow people to be able to take on new challenges knowing that they have the support of their team and are working together to address their goals.

5. Purpose in Life:

This is the conviction that life holds meaning. At work this means that you understand the value that you as an individual are contributing to the collective objectives of the company. You have to make a decision for yourself about how you want to be perceived, and as a result, whatever job you do has meaning and value.

6. Self Acceptance:

This comes from understanding and acknowledging all aspects of oneself as an individual, to know ones strengths and what to build on and also one’s weaknesses, and what to improve. With self acceptance an individual can locate themselves within the organisation and connect authentically with their work and peers.

Ultimately Jasmin concluded that individuals may have some or all of these factors positively or negatively affecting the multiple roles they play in their lives and when they come to work the unconscious aspects of those roles may manifest. Therefore, it is the job of managers and people teams to understand this and to try and create the conditions that psychologically support the individual at work. Without these factors positively influencing the workplace there are high levels of anxiety at work, which leads to burnout, apathy and people feeling like they need to leave the organisation.

Following this insightful context setting we moved into the community led workshop.

The workshop

At the GWS we believe strongly in understanding how our community experiences work and the factors that negatively affect their own experiences. This is so that we become more aware as a collective and create a body of community experiences so that we can identify ways to change, or address these. Prior to this event we requested that people in our GWS Slack group share their own experiences, where they had been made to feel psychologically unsafe at their work, with us. These were turned into scenarios with questions, which were workshopped by the community in small diverse groups.

The scenarios selected were those which seemed to affect the majority of the community, and they are outlined at the end of the article. We think its useful to share these because they affected our community in different ways, and are indicative of broader societal challenges. They also highlight multiple areas where people are made to feel that being themselves at work will be detrimental to their career progression, or where they are unable to understand how it is possible for them to progress without being forced to fundamentally change who they are or what they believe in. They covered multiple factors and included race, gender, performance and misalignment of values.

These are some of the ways our community suggested we begin addressing these challenges.


Just talking, getting things out in the open and making people aware of how their actions demonstrate their limited view or biases is a significant step to addressing issues at work. If leaders are never made aware of how their words and actions affect others, they’ll never know they need to change. As one participant said,

“as humans, leaders, managers, team members, be courageous about going there — opening up the conversation about race, about gender...”

Inclusive Decision Making

When making decisions that affect a group of people different from you, include them in the decision making process.

Is the decision fair and respectful of everyone in the workplace or does it create unnecessary distinctions based on factors external to performance and work?

Sense check certain decisions with people of different races, financial backgrounds and gender and make sure they don’t feel prejudiced by what feels right or best for you.

In addition leaders need to start to develop a more inclusive language at work, which includes being more mindful about speaking. This is particularly important when talking about things relating to race and gender. Does what you as a leader say create the environment which makes people feel that they need to fit in to succeed?

Traditional Power Structures

This subject came up many times in the workshop, that is, how are companies expected to be more inclusive, psychologically safe environments when the power structures remain the same?

Notice if people have to be a certain way to win a seat at the decision making table- do they have to play the same sports, have been to the same schools or attend the same religious services as you?

Do you prioritise speed of decision making ( because we’re all on the same page) over deliberate, considerate and inclusive methods?


Much of what emerged in the discussion connects to the fundamental principles relating to respecting each other as people.

Does the fact that someone takes a taxi to work and you drive an X5 make them less worthy of being part of your decision making consideration?

Leaders and all people inside organisations need to stop viewing each others decisions with judgement, just because someone is choosing to live a life that doesn’t make sense to you, it doesn’t mean they’re making poor choices. These are the opportunities for conversations, and for expanding the boundaries of your world view and perceptions.

Our society demands better workplaces, and we have the ability in our own choices to create psychologically safe, or unsafe environments for our coworkers and positively, or negatively affect their homes and communities and how they’re able to interact with society.

There are so many ways we can harness the power of workplaces to make the lives of employees, leaders and the community better.

If you want to have conversations about the ways you can make your workplace good, or to find out how you can contribute to our mission visit Thegoodworksociety.org.

To read more about our cases read the scenario’s below:

The Scenarios

You work in an open plan office where the environment feels unsafe because the leadership team talks negatively about their employees. Mostly they discuss when employees and women in particular are sick or stay home to look after their children. This lack of trust in the leadership team has led to a lack of psychological safety because employees do not feel as though they can approach their leaders, show any vulnerability at work or have any priorities outside of work.

You work in a company where the women have been given a different dress code to the men. According to leadership, women need to wear dresses & heels as it helps “reel in clients”. The men, however, can wear whatever they want.This has caused a culture of sexism in the organisation where women are often harassed or looked down upon, even though it was their (male leadership) idea. This has led to an unsafe environment for all employees who disagree with the requirement as they do not believe they have the ability to change or argue with the rules set by management.

You work in a company where exit interviews are showing that majority leavers are junior black management, all of whom are leaving because they feel under-valued in the workplace. They have raised the issue of not being given enriching work and not being stretched by their managers many times but it has not been addressed and therefore has resulted in employees leaving to find new jobs. This has caused an unsafe environment because no longer feel as though it is helpful to have open and honest discussions.

You work in a company where people of colour are being hired for superficial reasons, such as showing clients that they have a diverse team. The internal culture, however, is not actually inclusive. You have seen this in the ways that black staff treated by leadership as they are never promoted and their work is undervalued. Due to this, there is a culture of backstabbing and gossip. It has killed the staff’s culture to the point where the quality of their work suffers. The hiring of black people for PR reasons only has created an unsafe environment for all employees. Those who are struggling to feel included, and for those who would like for the leadership team to change their treatment of and perspective of black staff.

You are working inside an organisation to set up additional skill transfer sessions to. This is an opt in extra learning session. When you shared the list of people who had opted in to your session, which takes place after hours, the head of HR removed 2 people from the list saying they were about to go on performance management programs and shouldn’t be distracted. These peoples’ managers were only meeting them next week to discuss this but in the interim it was recommended that you leave them off mails without letting them know why. This is an example of the dishonest communication in this organisation. It is unsafe for employees because they are not aware of career-stifling decisions and are therefore not being given the opportunity to address their shortcomings.

You worked in an environment which declared itself as a people-first organisation. You deeply believed in their vision and with that started to bring on friends to join you at this people-first company. Some time passed and you decided some of my employment legalities had to change. But they were minor, and you didn’t consider them a problem for a company that puts it’s people first. Yet when you pushed for formal amendments the story from leadership changed. It got to such a point where you were fed up and decided to resign. The exit process was stressful, you weren’t given your bonus, you were required to pay for all the training you were sent on and you weren’t given any of the referral bonuses you were promised for bringing on your friends. You are glad to be out of that space but you realise that the environment was unsafe because it was money-first rather than people-first. Open and honest conversations weren’t respected and good employees were undervalued.