28 June 2024

Achieve more, stress less: How psychological safety elevates the work environment

Have you ever sat through a meeting where everyone but you seemingly agrees on a topic? The team is ready to move on to another discussion, your boss doesn’t mind and probably knows best, and you just don't want to stick out like a sore thumb, so you decide to keep your opinion to yourself. This may have saved you from a potentially uncomfortable discussion at the moment but also contributed to creating a dishonest environment.

Honesty proudly stands among the established cultural principles of Exness, encouraged and exemplified by the company’s leadership in every aspect of its operation. So what does it take to have an honest work environment? Speaking the truth is a good start, but knowing that you can freely and safely speak the truth without fear is crucial.

Creating and nurturing such an environment requires understanding your colleagues – be it superiors, peers, or subordinates – on a human level.

Karen Hutcheson, our Head of People Services Asia, knows this very well. Having been in the workforce for 24 years, she has experienced the full spectrum of HR responsibilities from Talent Acquisition to Learning and Development with employees of different nationalities, cultures, and mentalities. Today we take a peek at what Karen’s experience taught her about establishing, maintaining, and encouraging psychological safety at the workplace.

Through psychological safety, we can really find out what each team member has to offer. It allows us to learn what smart and talented people bring to the table, and ultimately leads to more productive and successful organizations."

Karen Hutcheson Head of People Services Asia

The root of all good

The concept of psychological safety is fascinating to me as a manager, as an HR person, and simply as an employee in an evolving work environment.

Although specific definitions may vary based on experience, the presence of psychological safety at a workplace can be defined by the ability to create act, speak up, and admit mistakes without the fear of negative consequences. The lack of fear creates the feeling of mental safety and acts as a permission for candor, being yourself in all professional interactions, removing mental barriers, and providing a sense of belonging.

The term itself appeared in widespread corporate vocabulary during COVID, when the importance of psychological safety was put in the limelight by the sudden and widespread issues created by the pandemic. The stress of unwonted work-from-home conditions, restrictions, and health concerns required extra attention and compassion on behalf of most managers to avoid putting unnecessary and harmful pressure on their employees. Providing safety and flexibility in the workplace has become more important than ever, but even as the pandemic-related restrictions got lifted, psychological safety and its benefits remained and thrived in organizations that would choose to adopt it.

Some find this adoption process to be easier and more natural than others, though.

A cultural clash

My career path took me across many countries, including the Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Vietnam… While each had its unique features, I’ve observed a common trend in the Asian culture of the early 2000s when it comes to mental health: sticking out of the crowd was generally frowned upon. You don’t want to say you feel mentally unsafe, or express yourself too much, for fear of being told off or even potentially losing your job. This has become less prevalent over the years, but old habits die hard.

It’s not a region-exclusive issue, as I’ve had similar experiences working with American colleagues as well, as swimming against the tide would carry negative consequences as well.

The first major shift came when I started working with Australians, who had a pretty good grasp of psychological safety even before COVID. Not only could you be yourself and speak freely at the workplace, you felt like a member of society. For example, being a mother means being able to excuse yourself from work earlier to see your child’s school play, or come in late if they’re not feeling well, or even decide to work from home to make sure your family receives proper care. You could even say you’re under a lot of stress and anxiety, and your boss would encourage you to take the day off. None of this would impact your career as everyone is on the same page regarding the importance of mental health and self-care.

In multinational organizations and partnerships, this stark contrast leads to interesting chemistry and unique social challenges. One such case happened during my days with an Australian company, when they outsourced some work to South-East Asia. Australians don’t follow rank in regular communication and are free to approach everyone in the organization, addressing them by their first name and being direct. Observing these interactions take place in such a casual manner was a real cultural shock for our SEA partners.

Smooth and successful collaboration in these cases requires understanding the source of certain cultural habits and differences. In most cases, it comes from family. Strict and traditional households have children follow what their parents say without questioning them. This naturally transitions into workplace, where rank takes a crucial role in the hierarchy: approaching someone several ranks higher than yourself is a big taboo.

As long as you understand different cultures, bridging the gap between them becomes a matter of cultural training. It won’t happen overnight, but explaining the benefits of less strict approaches to maintaining a workplace gradually transforms into practical application by a small minority. Their colleagues who would otherwise have a hard time adapting begin to observe the benefits of the new and unfamiliar approach, eventually transforming the whole organization. This process really picks up the pace if psychological safety practices are being displayed by the company’s leadership. As regular employees start emulating these behaviors, cultural habits form, becoming common and effective for the rest of the company.

But what exactly are these behaviors and how does one implement them within their team?

One for the team

The Maslow hierarchy puts safety right on top of basic survival needs like food and water, closely followed by belonging and self-esteem. The correct way of achieving esteem at work is to have trust in the professional environment, so that’s what I focus on. I want my team to trust me to fuel confidence. One way of achieving this is to allow mistakes. Whenever they ask me what they should do next, I ask them, ‘What do YOU think you should do?’

As they come up with options, I insist they go with the one they consider the best. If they fail - it’s fine. Obviously, failure is followed by discussions, analysis, and coaching, but you need to let them fail to allow them to learn. Exness in particular is great at allowing failure that helps catapult people’s experience to new heights. Outright telling employees what to do is more conceptual than practical and will not encourage learning.

Asking your team what they should do or how they view certain things engages them in a thought process and makes them feel involved, encouraging them to take the initiative more often. When you constantly engage people to contribute and speak about what they think, they get used to that. Of course, you have to listen carefully and provide feedback, leading by example and making sure they know they are heard.

Through psychological safety, we can really find out what each team member has to offer. It allows us to learn what smart and talented people bring to the table and leads to more productive and successful organizations.

Being flexible also contributes to trust. You don’t need to ask for permission or give reasons for going on leave: you just notify me and take the leave you’re entitled to. As your manager, it’s my responsibility to make sure the business doesn’t get disrupted during your absence, so you don’t have to worry about it. When your team feels this trust, they know they don't need to lie to you, and you don’t have to second-guess whether they have challenges. Trust is the key component to a transparent, psychologically safe environment.

Too safe for comfort?

As with everything, balance is key.

On an individual level, a complete lack of psychological safety suffocates individuality, creativity, and motivation. You only do what is told, keeping good unorthodox ideas to yourself, and following a mold shaped from the top down. This prevents the company from evolving and can result in it losing to the competition and the inevitable tragic closure.

But can too much psychological safety have a negative impact? There will certainly be abuse of the system, as people exploit trust to their advantage – whether it’s voluntarily or not. The way you handle abuse is, again, through psychological safety tools. No need for extremes like firing, demoting, or scolding an employee. Depending on the situation, you have a conversation with them, explaining how this behavior is something we do not want in the workplace, and that everyone needs to be on equal grounds. Manage that in the most human way possible: make sure they understand they made a mistake without passing judgment. They don’t want to repeat it to avoid disappointing people who trust them.

At the end of the day, a psychologically safe work environment allows people to do things not because you tell them to, but because they love it and feel entrusted. They’re more likely to put their heart and soul into the project, rather than simply ticking boxes and doing the bare minimum. It’s a win-win situation for the employees, their managers, and the company as a whole.

I’ve been with Exness for 1,5 years, and it feels great to observe psychological safety practices being not only promoted but actively applied at all levels of the company. There’s always room for improvement, but our C-suites ‘open door’ policy means anyone can approach them – even the CEO – with questions and inquiries. That’s how you create psychological safety for the benefit of your organization and everyone in it.

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