A recent industry survey conducted by Behave, a behavioural consultancy, has uncovered a significant gap in understanding the concept of psychological safety among HR leaders.
The study, which surveyed over 200 senior decision-makers in HR roles, found that just 16 percent of respondents had a clear grasp of what psychological safety truly means, with a majority struggling to measure and implement it effectively within their organizations.
Psychological safety, often misconstrued as a sense of security or bringing one’s whole self to work, was defined by Behave as “an environment where employees balance comfort and discomfort to take well-calibrated risks.”
Notably, respondents from the education sector exhibited the best understanding of this definition at 38 percent, while those from the finance sector lagged behind at 13 percent. However, once the concept was clarified for them, HR leaders acknowledged its critical importance for their organization’s success.
Also, 74 percent of HR leaders find it challenging to measure psychological safety within their organisation, and 84 percent believe that psychological safety is crucial for promoting diversity, inclusion, and a sense of belonging.
What else did the study find?
Almost one-third (32%) identify remote work as a significant obstacle in maintaining psychological safety within their organisation. Also, 88 percent of respondents expressed the need for more support and commitment from their organisation’s leadership.
It was also found that 80 percent agreed that psychological safety will become increasingly important for organizations in the coming years.
The survey targeted 206 senior HR leaders in the UK, representing companies with varying employee numbers ranging from 50 to 500-plus. A significant majority, 80%, believe that psychological safety will play a pivotal role in the future, although the study revealed limited understanding (23%) and difficulties in measurement (32%) as significant hurdles to successful implementation.
Dr. Alexandra Dobra-Kiel, Innovation & Strategy Director at Behave, commented on the findings, stating, “Psychological safety, while a critical factor in our professional lives, is currently poorly defined by the wider business community. It is in some ways a misnomer, with the emphasis on ‘safety’ naturally leading to people equating the phrase to mean being ‘nice’ to each other. Its definition is fundamentally contradictory – how can it be safe to take risks? This inherently means that it’s hard to translate into concrete enablers for companies to nurture it.”
What does ‘psychological safety’ actually mean?
Dobra-Kiel added, “We need to embrace the true meaning of psychological safety, balancing comfort and discomfort. It is about people and businesses stretching their comfort zones to drive both personal and company growth. To assess and improve psychological safety, benchmarking and sharing best practices are essential, allowing HR professionals to better understand and embed this vital concept within their organisations.”
More than 80 percent of HR leaders believe that psychological safety will become more important for organizations, with this number rising to 89 percent in organisations with more than 500 employees, indicating that larger companies are taking the lead in prioritizing this concept. However, HR leaders are also calling for more support and commitment from their organisation’s leadership, with 88 percent of respondents highlighting this need.
Hybrid work environments also feature prominently in the concerns of HR leaders when implementing psychological safety, with nearly a third (32%) considering it a significant barrier. The rapid adoption of hybrid work arrangements has amplified the challenges of delivering psychological safety in the workplace.
Tom Laranjo, CEO of Total Media and Behave, commented on the challenges posed by hybrid work, stating, “Organisations have moved to hybrid working at a record pace with great enthusiasm, but they have limited organisational capability to support it, so we’re all learning on the job. As such, the challenges of delivering a psychologically safe workplace are amplified in an online context.”
Amelia Brand is the Editor for HRreview, and host of the HR in Review podcast series. With a Master’s degree in Legal and Political Theory, her particular interests within HR include employment law, DE&I, and wellbeing within the workplace. Prior to working with HRreview, Amelia was Sub-Editor of a magazine, and Editor of the Environmental Justice Project at the University College London, writing and overseeing articles into UCL’s weekly newsletter. Her previous academic work has focused on philosophy, politics and law, with a special focus on how artificial intelligence will feature in the future.