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How to Build Psychological Safety at Work and in Workplace Mentoring

September 27, 2022
Frances Campbell

Top takeaways: 

  1. Psychological safety is the feeling that there will be no negative consequences from speaking openly, sharing critical information or being vulnerable. It can apply to our personal relationships and at work.
  2. It’s essential in mentoring for creating the right space to learn and grow together, which means taking psychological safety into consideration
  3. You can factor psychological safety into the design of your program by setting clear expectations, providing training, thinking about location and factoring in feedback 

In any relationship, psychological safety and trust are at the core of how and why that relationship works. This is especially true at work and in workplace mentoring. Unfortunately, psychological safety at work is a concept that you’re most likely to come across when you experience a lack of it. 

By understanding what it is and how to build it, we can transform our workplaces and mentoring programs. This goes hand in hand with creating inclusive workplaces too, as we need to feel seen, valued and heard to feel included. 

Sounds great right? But what is psychological safety in the workplace and how can we build it in mentoring programs? 

What is psychological safety in the workplace? 

Put simply, psychological safety is the feeling that there will be no negative consequences from speaking openly, sharing critical information or being vulnerable. 

In the workplace, this means that employees can freely share their thoughts and ideas without fear of doing harm to their careers. A company or team with good psychological safety is one where everyone feels respected and accepted. 

This is particularly important in relationships such as workplace mentoring, in which the purpose is personal growth and development. 

When there is a lack of psychological safety, people don’t feel comfortable sharing ideas, expressing themselves or challenging one another. This leads to a loss of innovation and creativity and inhibits learning. 

📖 Find out more about embedding mentoring in your HR initiatives with Guider 📖

What are the benefits of psychological safety at work? 

There are wide-ranging benefits to creating psychological safety in your workplace and in your mentoring program. In fact, a multi-year Google study found that the single biggest contributor to successful, high-performing teams was psychological safety. 

And this makes sense, given that psychological safety makes people feel included, valued and connected, as well as encouraging people to share ideas openly, which leads to innovation. When we feel valued in our relationships we are much more likely to thrive. This also goes hand in hand with making workplaces more inclusive, as both activities share the same goal. 

Further benefits include: 

  • Increased confidence
  • Higher levels of trust 
  • More room for creativity 
  • Increased innovation 
  • More engaged and productive teams 
  • Improved mental health and lower stress 
  • Faster learning and growth 

It’s important to remember there are benefits to psychological safety at work for leaders and mentors too! Everyone needs to feel safe to ask questions, try new things and show vulnerability. When this happens, there is more space to build trust and rapport, leading to growth. In leadership, psychological safety is a powerful tool.

In mentoring, psychological safety between the mentor and mentee is essential for creating a space for learning and growth by allowing both parties to feel comfortable sharing and learning. On top of this, mentoring can increase perceptions of workplace psychological safety, making it an invaluable asset to your organisation's culture. 

When people feel psychologically safe in their relationships, the sky is the limit 🚀

What happens when there is a lack of psychological safety? 

Unfortunately, many people may have experienced a lack of psychological safety in the workplace, which has lasting impacts on how we feel at work and in new mentorships. 

It can lead to: 

  • Lack of confidence
  • Inhibited innovation and creativity 
  • Culture of fear and blame 
  • Stress and poor wellbeing
  • Lack of employee engagement 
  • Higher attrition of staff 
  • Avoidable mistakes and danger 

As you can expect, teams and relationships in which people don’t feel safe to be themselves, share ideas or be vulnerable are detrimental in a number of ways. It can lead to poor morale, employee churn and, in worst cases, employee burnout. This is why it’s important to be aware of creating a culture of psychological safety and pro-actively work to do this.

So, why not implement a mentoring program to increase psychological safety in your workplace? Or factor workplace psychological safety into your existing mentoring program? With some careful consideration, it’s something that you can build into the very fabric of your mentoring experience.

How do I create psychological safety in my mentoring program? 

The good news is that you can level up your mentoring program to encourage psychological safety from the start. 

Here are our top ways to build psychological safety in your mentoring program:

Set clear expectations 📝

In order to commit to mentoring and open up to learning and growth, participants need to understand the boundaries and expectations of the program.

As a program lead, it’s important to communicate clearly what the aims of the program are, who it’s for, and what’s expected of participants. Make sure everyone is aware that mentoring is a confidential relationship and not related to performance reviews. 

Mentoring relies on mentees being more vulnerable, so it’s crucial to remove it from their performance reports and distance it from their line managers, assuring that layer of privacy.” Megan Taljaard, Learning and Development Business Partner at ASOS

If there’s a lack of psychological safety in your organisation, you will need to do some groundwork to build trust in the program before asking people to join. To do this you can; run awareness events on mentoring, trial a pilot program, build up a bank of mentoring champions and identify strong senior leaders to spearhead your program. 

Provide training 👥

It’s the responsibility of us all to build psychological safety at work. To support this, you can provide both mentors and mentees with resources and training to help them to understand what psychological safety is and how to build it. If you're using mentoring software such as Guider, resources such as this are built into our mentoring platform's learning hub.

You can also encourage learning as a mentoring community. For example, bringing together mentors to swap stories and advice can help them to feel comfortable being vulnerable. Admitting we don’t have all the answers can be hard, but vulnerability is an important step in creating a culture of safety and trust.

Here at Guider, our new Learning Hub includes articles and videos on topics such as creating psychological safety and more. We also run training sessions at strategic points throughout programs from kick-off to close, to teach people how to be good mentors and mentees.

Guider mentoring software banner advert including a smiling woman looking at a screen

Think about location 🏝

Incorporating safe spaces for your mentors and mentees to meet is a great way to reinforce confidentiality. While psychological safety comes down to how people interact, it’s important not to forget how our surroundings can affect how we feel. 

For some, speaking in a private room feels like the safest way to ensure confidentiality. Yet for others, a crowded coffee shop is the winner. Offering several dedicated spaces for mentoring is essential for allowing participants to build psychological safety together. 

Don’t forget that you can also offer virtual mentoring for remote or hybrid workers and global teams to connect from the place that works best for them. 

📖 Read our guide to making virtual mentoring work for more 📖

Ask for Feedback ✅

Admitting that we don’t have all the answers is a powerful tool in leadership and in building psychological safety at work. This starts with program leads too! 

Factoring feedback into your mentoring program will keep you on track. It also shows a willingness to be vulnerable and ask others for input. Role modelling this behaviour in the design of your program shows your mentors and mentees that their feedback is valued and that it’s ok to ask for guidance. 

It’s also a vital opportunity to assess whether your program participants have the psychological safety they need to grow. Using surveys at the beginning, middle and end of your program, or at regular intervals for an ongoing program, you can check in and make changes as needed. 

Cultivating psychological safety in workplace mentoring takes thought and time. In the long term, this can be the single biggest way to ensure the success of your mentoring program and your workplace culture in general. By understanding psychological safety at work and factoring it into the design of your mentoring program, you’ll go a long way toward creating the right environment for your people to make the most of mentoring.

To find out more about how mentoring can supercharge your organisation, book a chat with us today 👇👇👇

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