Psychological Safety: Maintaining a Healthy Work Culture


Crista Perlton

Crista Perlton


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Psychological Safety: Maintaining a Healthy Work Culture

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A Japanese proverb states 人生に失敗がないと人生を 失敗する (jinsei ni shippai ga nai to jinsei wo shippai suru), or “A life without failure is a failure.” Whether in our personal lives or at work, we don’t learn from success only. But workplaces especially must foster a culture of psychological safety, or Anzen, to give employees the confidence to grow through failure, rather than to fear it.

Jump to actionable advice. This piece is part of our Chōwa blog series.

What is Anzen?

Pronounced “ahn-zen” and written using the characters 安 (relaxed) and 全 (wholly), Anzen roughly translates to “safety.” What does this even mean? It’s too easy to dismiss this important concept as “P.C. culture,” a derogatory term to indicate over-the-top accommodation for people. Anzen refers to an environment where people feel unafraid, whether that’s of failure, retribution, rejection, etc. Workstars explains that “Feeling emotionally safe means employees feel able to speak up and communicate openly.” Just as you can’t expect a starving person to become an Olympian, a person feeling unsafe at work cannot reasonably be expected to yield the type of game-changing ideas that require risk-taking.

While governing bodies like OSHA deal with physical health and wellness in the workplace, psychological safety is usually the purview of individual organizations, who have the option to ignore it. But ignore Anzen at your peril: There are deep implications for the success (or failure) of any business.

The Whys and Hows of Anzen

Taking risks can be scary. Organizations that foster the spirit of Anzen in the workplace will see major returns on investment. Here are some of the top reasons why and how to work towards a psychologically safe work culture.

It Has to Come from the Top

Picture those clap emojis between each word when I say: No matter how hard the rest of the organization works to foster Anzen, leaders can undo all this good work if they don’t embody Anzen.

Anzen has to come from the top of the organization. This is an extreme example, but picture a team that functions pretty well on the day-to-day. But when the regional manager comes in, he’s always derisive and dismissive. Because he holds a position of power, the good work that the team and the team manager does each day ultimately don’t matter.

Leaders: pay attention to the state of safety in your workplace. Have regular check-ins with your managers, employees, and HR to gain information and learn about areas where you can improve.

But Lauren, doesn’t this mean I’m babying my employees? No. Anzen does not mean handling people with kid gloves nor does it alleviate anyone from their responsibilities. On the contrary, everyone is still accountable for their tasks, work product, and/or subordinates. It simply means you’ve worked hard to create an environment that removes many of the barriers to workplace excellence.

Psychological Safety is ALWAYS a Work-in-progress

As nice as it would be to have a “magic bullet” fix for psychological safety in the workplace, there’s no such thing. Establishing and maintaining a healthy workplace is always a work in progress. It therefore will always require active attention, regular maintenance, and so forth. 

There is another proverb that there are no perfect people, but only perfect intentions. You will mess up sometimes. Leaders must establish a workplace culture where employees from the very bottom to the very top react calmly to constructive criticism about the health of the workplace. Maybe your organization employs more men than women, and maybe the women let a manager know that something sexist is happening at work. Don’t deny it or shut down! Don’t drown yourself in embarrassment! Hear, listen, and apply. A thriving workplace is continuously improving; remember Kaizen applies to improving workplace culture as much as the work you do.

It’s Almost Always FREE

While you might choose to invest in outside training or ask your HR department to conduct internal training, investing in psychological safety at your organization is almost always free. It costs nothing more than attention, respect, and kindness to measure the mood of your employees and to seek information. 

This does require a certain amount of humility from leadership: Leaders have to be genuinely invested in self-improvement and the well-being of the organization to be able to hear, listen, and apply.

Done Right, the ROI Can Be Huge

The short of it is that employees dealing with an unsafe work environment are more likely to be withdrawn and to quickly leave for another job. Happy employees, however, not only stay longer, but they are more curious, more likely to alert managers to problems they spot, and so on. In fact, research by Detert and Burris’s in the Academy of Management Journal included the finding that employees who feel safe are more likely to suggest creative ideas and speak up. Happy employees are more likely to stay on board, and they’re more likely to yield quality ideas that translate to business gains.

Google recently invested substantial resources to research the best teams and reached the conclusion that safety is the top predictor of success for teams! Netflix, which comes in at #1 for employee happiness is currently worth around $200 billion USD. The math is clear: Happy employees feel safe enough to create cutting-edge ideas, which translates into increased market share for organizations.

This is even more important during COVID-19. HubSpot conducted research in 2020, asking consumers about the top ten factors that influence the companies they choose to patronize. Number four on that list was “the company has treated their employees well during this crisis.” This means that buyers are more likely to trust your company if you have a reputation for happy, well-cared-for employees!

Be Attentive to Your Workplace’s “Mood”

Fostering a real environment of Anzen takes constant, active care. Safety in word but not deed will gain none of these returns on investment.

If you think you have affable employees who are rarely disagreeable, you very likely have a big problem on your hands. Employees who feel like they have no voice, and that their workplace is emotionally unsafe tend to shut down and soon seek other employment.

Leaders and managers, talk to your HR department about what you can do to be actively investing in the psychological safety of your employees. Employees: have open conversations with your managers and HR staff to discuss your organization’s quality of Anzen.

Remember: Hear, listen, and apply.

Get the Chōwa Book

Anzen is just one of the many elements of Inedo’s new cultural philosophy of Chōwa, or “natural balance.” We will be explaining the various elements of Chōwa here on our blog and on our social media (TwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn). Subscribe to these channels and download your copy today to learn about Inedo’s unique cultural philosophy of Chōwa.

Crista Perlton

Crista Perlton