How to foster psychological safety and trust at your firm
Trust and psychological safety are critical elements of any healthy and productive work environment.
A study conducted by Google that examined factors that contribute to high-performing teams, found that psychological safety was the most crucial element for team effectiveness. According to the study, employees who feel psychologically safe perform better, are more likely to voice their ideas, and are less likely to leave a company.
By prioritizing fostering trust and psychological safety, your accounting firm can reap the benefits of increased employee satisfaction, retention, and overall performance.
What is psychological safety?
Psychological safety in the workplace refers to an environment where employees feel accepted and safe. Teammates are comfortable being themselves, expressing their ideas, and taking risks without fear of negative consequences like being judged or penalized for mistakes.
When there is a sense of trust and safety, employees feel supported and valued, improving engagement and encouraging creativity in your workplace.
“I truly believe that it’s the psychological safety that everyone feels at work that allows us to be fearless and courageous.
“That’s something you can’t put a dollar value on, because having your employees be candid with you can save you so much time and money in the long term. It can also give you so much insight into the day-to-day issues you may not see as a leader.”
7 ways to foster trust and psychological safety in the workplace
Fostering psychological safety is essential for creating a professional environment where employees feel they are safe to take risks and share their ideas. Remember that this is an ongoing process that requires consistent effort and commitment from leaders and employees.
Here are some strategies you can use as a leader to build trust and promote psychological safety within your team.
1. Lead by example
Creating a culture of trust and psychological safety starts at the top. As a leader, you must model the behavior you wish to see in your employees.
By demonstrating vulnerability, actively listening, and valuing diverse perspectives, you can set the tone for an inclusive and safe environment.
You should also regularly assess your firm's practices, policies, and culture. Ask for feedback from your employees to identify areas of improvement and make changes as needed.
At Zenbooks, we send out a quarterly employee pulse survey that includes questions about psychological safety to see how we’re doing as leaders in building a safe environment for our team.
2. Encourage open communication
Establishing clear and effective channels for communication is vital to fostering trust and psychological safety. Regularly organizing team meetings, having one-on-one discussions, and gathering feedback provide platforms for teammates to share their thoughts and concerns.
Encourage open dialogue among team members, ensuring that everyone has an equal opportunity to contribute without judgment or fear of retribution. Take the time to listen to your teammates, finding and implementing solutions when needed so they know they’ve been heard.
"In the realm of team dynamics, psychological safety is the fertile soil where seeds of open communication take root, nurturing growth, collaboration, and innovation. It is the unwavering belief that every voice matters and embracing collective behaviors that empower individuals to unleash their potential and embrace vulnerability, ultimately shaping the tapestry of a resilient and high-performing team."
— Zach Montroy, Organizational Strategist and Business Coach, Founder and CEO at The Intention Collective
3. Foster a sense of belonging
Employees who feel a sense of belonging are more likely to trust their colleagues and leaders. Encourage teamwork and mutual support among team members. Team-building activities, like brainstorming sessions, a games day, or group volunteering, can help promote connection and foster a supportive community.
In addition to connecting with your team, create an inclusive work environment by celebrating diversity and recognizing each person’s unique perspective.
“Different people with different life experiences will give you different perspectives, which can be invaluable in helping you avoid costly mistakes,” says Jessica.
To maintain a safe and inclusive space, actively address any instances of discrimination, harassment, or bias.
4. Address conflicts and concerns promptly
Conflicts and concerns are inevitable in any workplace, but how they are handled can significantly impact psychological safety.
Encourage open and respectful communication to address conflicts promptly and in a constructive manner before they escalate.
At Zenbooks, for example, we often send anonymous surveys to our team to gather honest feedback, and we bring people together when there are significantly differing opinions. While these conversations are not always pleasant, they can help teammates settle a disagreement and reach a consensus.
Providing employee training and resources on positive conflict resolution strategies, such as mediation and coaching, can also help employees navigate and resolve issues effectively.
5. Support autonomy and decision-making
Encourage employees to take ownership of their work, and provide them with the necessary resources and support to make informed decisions.
Be sure to clearly communicate responsibilities and goals to avoid confusion and help your employees feel more confident in their roles.
Granting employees autonomy, while setting clear expectations, fosters a supportive environment and a culture of accountability and ownership.
It also enhances trust between team members and leaders in your company, which encourages employees to communicate openly about their work-life balance needs.
In turn, employees perceive your organization as a place that values their overall well-being, and they are more likely to be committed, engaged, and loyal.
Jessica believes that “it’s unrealistic to expect employees to be at 100% capacity given the world’s current circumstances. Between child care, lay offs, aging parents, and sick pets, we as leaders need to have empathy and awareness of what an employee is able to contribute. Our employees will remember how we treat them during difficult times and will be loyal to us in the long run.”
By prioritizing employee well-being and leading with empathy, you can create a work environment that encourages work-life integration and enables employees to thrive both personally and professionally.
6. Celebrate mistakes as learning opportunities
In a psychologically safe workplace, mistakes are viewed as opportunities for growth rather than as failures. Encourage employees to take responsible risks and try new approaches without fear of blame or punishment.
“If you punish people too much for failure, then they will respond accordingly and the innovation you will get will be very incrementalist. Nobody's going to try anything bold for fear of getting fired or punished in some way. The risk/reward must be balanced, in favor of making bold moves.”
― Elon Musk
When mistakes occur, take the time to reflect on what you learned as a team without assigning blame, and identify steps to apply those learnings. Celebrate innovation and experimentation, and recognize individuals who demonstrate a growth mindset and show resilience in the face of setbacks.
7. Invest in training and development
Investing in your employees' professional and personal development demonstrates a commitment to their growth and success. Provide regular feedback and offer coaching, training programs, and resources to help employees enhance their skills and knowledge.
Those who feel supported in their personal and professional growth are more likely to trust your organization, feel psychologically safe, and stay with your company long term.
Our employee turnover at Zenbooks has historically been very low. We had a 0% turnover in 2022 and an 11% turnover in 2023—that's 6% turnover averaged over the last two years compared to the ~13.4% industry average for professional services.
This translates to lower recruiting, training, and transition costs resulting from employee turnover. It also means our team members are happy working with us and they treat our clients very well as a result.
Building trust and psychological safety in the workplace requires intentional effort and commitment from both leaders and employees.
By creating an environment where trust is valued, communication is open, and individuals feel psychologically safe, you can foster collaboration, innovation, and employee well-being.
Investing in trust and psychological safety not only enhances productivity and performance but also creates a culture where employees thrive, leading to long-term success and growth for your firm as a whole.
Eric Saumure, CPA, CA
Eric Saumure is a recognized Chartered Accountant (CA) and Chartered Professional Accountant (CPA) in Canada. Eric obtained his CPA, CA designation during his time at KPMG LLP. He now runs an online accounting firm, Zenbooks, focused on supporting small business owners in achieving their goals.