Psychological Safety: The Key to a High-Performing Environment

Employees in a conference wearing WHOOP

Have you ever felt it was unsafe to say something that you really wanted to?

Maybe it was with your family, a group of friends, during a work call, or out in public somewhere. The hesitation and apprehension you felt around whether or not it was OK to speak your mind can best be described as psychological safety, and it’s key for building a high-performing team. 

“I think the simplest way to describe psychological safety is a sense of permission for candor,” said Dr. Amy Edmondson, Harvard Business School professor and behavioral science researcher. “Not that it’s easy, but that you believe your voice is welcome in whatever context you’re in. Whether that’s a work team or a friend group, you believe it’s absolutely OK to speak up with concerns, dissenting views, ideas, questions, requests for help, and all of the rest of those behaviors that we think of as interpersonally risky.” 

In the workplace, that freedom to safely speak is critical to unlocking the best ideas, creativity, and performance. In fact, a study at Google revealed that psychological safety is the top factor in determining team effectiveness. But if organizational leaders are operating from a sleep deficit, they may unconsciously create a psychologically unsafe environment for the employees and teams that support them. A lack of sleep limits our ability to remain patient and empathetic. Since employees can sense the mood of leadership, they are more likely to shut down rather than speak up to avoid the wrath of a sleep-deprived and grumpy manager. 

WHOOP VP of Performance Science Kristen Holmes collaborated with McKinsey’s Executive Leadership Program in Australia on a study that explored the concept of psychological safety at work and how sleep deprivation impacts it. 

The bottom line: When leaders sleep less, their employees feel less psychologically safe. 

Organizational value is created through the sharing of employee capabilities and talents. If a portion of that remains hidden or unexpressed, or people hold back out of fear, companies inevitably leave value on the table in the form of stifled creativity and unstated solutions. 

Sleep is key to maintaining psychologically safe — and ultimately, successful — work environments. It’s critical for leadership performance, not only from a cognitive functioning perspective, but also from an interpersonal perspective. Leaders who don’t support a psychologically safe environment can’t bring out the best in individual employees or the team as a whole. 

Central to the work of the study with McKinsey’s Executive Leadership Program was the question: “Does a leader’s sleep quality the night before a meeting impact how psychologically safe their direct report’s feel in that meeting?” The study found that leaders who had higher levels of sleep debt had employees who didn’t necessarily feel safe with them. A lack of sleep limits inhibitory control — our ability to control our attention, emotions, and behaviors. It’s that voice of reason that stops us from snapping at someone unnecessarily. It’s that nudge that makes us more patient and tolerant. With limited sleep, that control diminishes. 

On the other side, leaders who got more sleep the night before a meeting fared much better. Their employees reported a mean psychological safety score of 4 out of a possible 5 — proof that when individual employees are well rested — including leadership — the entire organization benefits.

WHOOP Unite™ helps leaders improve their sleep habits and thus enables them to maintain psychologically safe work environments. 

Leaders who get proper rest are more patient, compassionate, and positive. WHOOP helps to track virtually all of the metrics that support quality rest. 

  • Track sleep and wake time, including the amount of time spent in each sleep stage. The in-app Sleep Coach monitors your circadian rhythm and recommends exactly how much sleep you need.
  • Track nutrition and exercise habits with the WHOOP Journal to avoid blood sugar spikes or digestion issues that could hinder your ability to sleep well. 
  • Track naps with the Sleep Coach to reduce sleep debt and improve alertness.  

Coach employees toward improved stress management, higher-quality sleep, and better health with WHOOP Unite. The health and wellness solution supports businesses in building a culture of engagement and care, improving employee health, and optimizing performance. Proactively identify individuals and teams with poor sleep performance so leaders can take action.

Discover how WHOOP Unite can help increase psychological safety within your organization.

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