Creating a Psychologically Safe Workplace

Posted January 12th, 2023 by Urban Legal Recruitment

How many of us resist speaking up to share our thoughts and opinions at work? In an increasingly polarized world, it’s sometimes uncomfortable to share what we think and feel for fear of being labelled or misunderstood.

This is particularly relevant in the legal industry where junior lawyers and support staff may be reluctant to say or do anything they perceive could have a negative impact on their careers. The work is fast-paced and often complex with potentially serious consequences, making it even harder to share ideas openly, question decisions, and raise issues.

The term psychological safety first emerged in the mid-1960s when MIT professors Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis defined it as “an atmosphere where one can take chances without fear and with sufficient protection”. The concept of psychological safety has continued to evolve, and now, “considerable prior research shows psychological safety is a precursor to adaptive, innovative performance—which is needed in today’s rapidly changing environment—at the individual, team, and organization levels.” (McKinsey: Psychological safety and the critical role of leadership development)

“More and more, we are seeing that our clients are recognizing the need for psychological safety in the workplace and implementing roles within their firms to, directly and indirectly, address this issue,“ according to Stacy Cowan, founder of Urban Legal Recruitment.“Creating a culture where thoughtful risk-taking, questioning and sharing is the norm doesn’t just honour the individual, it affects the bottom line by attracting and retaining quality candidates.” 

A psychologically safe workplace promotes collaboration, resilience, motivation, and innovation – all required for organizational growth and long-term success.

Effects of psychological safety

Amy Edmondson, a renowned Harvard professor and expert in psychological safety defines it as “a shared understanding by team members that they will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes”. She calls it “permission for candour”

Benefits of High Psychological Safety 

  • Lawyers and support staff who work in a psychologically safe environment are:
  • comfortable raising concerns and reporting errors and less likely to try to cover them up 
  • more likely to engage in "risky" behaviours like speaking out and questioning the status quo, which are important for growth and learning 
  • able to learn and grow from their (and others’) failures 
  • perform better and stay longer
  • are more engaged and perform at a higher level 

Drawbacks of Low Psychological Safety 

  • Errors will not be detected until after they snowball into a crisis. 
  • Firms lose the benefits of productive risk-taking and innovation, which is hindered by lawyers' fear of criticism. 
  • Staff will be less likely to collaborate if they are fearful that their colleagues will be judgmental and harm their reputation with gossip about perceived weaknesses. 
  • Associates and staff tend to feel less certain of their value and therefore less able to raise problems and more afraid that mistakes will be held against them. 
  • Partners and lawyers are less likely to ask for needed help because they fear it will make them look weak, especially those who are socialized to prize independence over interdependence. 
  • Adapted from Benefits of Psychological Safety (Lee et al., 2003; Morrison, 1993; Nembhard & Edmondson, 20 I 2) 

How to create a psychologically safe workplace

Google’s comprehensive two-year study on team performance revealed that the highest-performing teams have one thing in common: psychological safety. But psychological safety does not happen automatically. According to Amy Edmundsen, “a crucial misconception among business leaders is that psychological safety will be present in any reasonably healthy work environment. In fact, psychologically safe work environments are rare.”

Whether working in a legal firm or as in-house counsel, leaders can create a psychologically safe environment by practicing RIGHT.

While the primary onus for psychological safety is on leaders, team members - whether junior lawyers, paralegals or support staff, also have a role to play. By openly appreciating teammates’ contributions and differences, sharing learnings, taking thoughtful risks and showing a willingness to question and respectfully challenge, everyone contributes to creating and sustaining a healthy workplace.

Creating a culture of psychological safety is crucial for the success of any organization, and this is especially true in a law firm where the work can be demanding and where the stakes are high. Fostering a safe, supportive and inclusive environment allows law firms to attract and retain top talent and create a positive work culture that ultimately benefits both employees and clients.