Psychological Safety in Public Relations: Are You Encouraging Employees to Speak Up or Shut Down?


At a time when employee health and wellness are top of mind, there’s a different form of safety that we also need to focus on, one that’s key to long-term success – psychological safety.    

The concept of “psychological safety” is about encouraging employees to speak up. It’s about creating workplaces in which individuals or teams are not fearful of sharing their perspective.

Although creating safe spaces for employees to speak up is not new, but Harvard professor, Amy C. Edmondson’s work in this area has captured the imagination because it offers a path to higher performing teams, innovation and diversity. (Read her book The Fearless Organization or watch her TED talk on building a psychologically safe workplace.)  

Underscoring the importance of the concept, a Google study found that psychological safety was the most significant success factor underpinning high-performance teams across the organization.

Edmondson, who discussed psychological safety in our Marketing IMPACT Council™/CommunicationsMatch™, COVID-19 Reset webinar series shared the consequences when teams self-censor; when individuals don’t share problems or issues, because they don’t feel it is safe to do so. Read the summary of the webinar featuring Edmondson. Watch the replay here.

With so much going on, it may be tempting for industry leaders to argue that psychological safety isn’t a priority at this time. That would be a mistake.

When it comes to psychological safety, we are at an “if not now, then when” moment. If employees do not feel they can share their ideas, concerns around returning to office spaces during the pandemic or abuse or racism they may be subject to in the workplace, companies risk missing opportunities to innovate or worse.

We’ve all worked, at one time or another, with people who made us or others afraid to speak up. People who dominated conversations, shut down other perspectives, or dismissed them out of hand. And, we’ve likely seen the results that range from anxiety to missing out on transformative ideas with the potential to drive long-term success. 

These experiences are poisonous and corrosive to morale and productivity. Workplaces in which employees are not heard lead to employees closing down and eventually quitting. 

And when it comes to diverse employees, we need to recognize that there are additional layers of behavior and experience around race or sexual orientation that create even higher barriers to sharing perspectives from diverse viewpoints.      

The starting point for walking-the-talk is a recognition of the benefits of a psychologically safe workplace for employees and acknowledging the real risks to the organization when your team does not speak up. 

As a leader, how will you know if employees feel as though they can share what’s on their minds? Ask! As long as you can handle the truth and are willing to do something to address issues you may uncover. And, be willing to bring in experts to help – our partner coaches/consultants on CommunicationsMatch™ can help you navigate this difficult terrain.

In Success in Communications: Four Magic Words – What do you Think?, asking this simple question is a powerful starting point for open and honest discussions. But, only if your team or colleagues feel they can share what they really think and believe that something will come from it.       

When teams feel safe enough to share insights and perspective, challenge others, and see leaders implementing their ideas – you build the foundation for the road to innovation, alignment, diversity and inclusion.

As we manage through the pandemic and seek ways to increase diversity in the communications and marketing industries, psychological security has a key role to play. Time to talk about it.

Simon Erskine Locke, Founder & CEO of CommunicationsMatch™

CommunicationsMatch™ offers search tools and services to help companies find, shortlist, and hire agencies, consultants, and freelancers, and help agencies and professionals generate new business leads. During the coronavirus pandemic, CommunicationsMatch is leveraging its resources to help connect struggling not-for-profits and companies with Communications Volunteers willing to give their time to help others at no cost or discounted services. Through its’ partnership with the Marketing IMPACT Council™, it is offering communicators access to a unique low-cost telehealth services program from MDLIVE, as well as additional time and discounts on membership plans. Find out more at the CommunicationsMatch Insights Blog.

Jaya Koilpillai Bohlmann, President and Founder, Designing Communication, MSMOB, APR, ACC, certified coach. Professor, University of Maryland.

A marketing, communication, engagement, organization development executive and coach with 20-plus years’ experience working in-house and as a consultant. She has an award-winning portfolio of successes with global Fortune 500 companies, associations, nonprofits and consulting firms. A CommunicationsMatch™ coaching partner, she specializes in helping companies, nonprofits and individuals clarify their brand attributes, create brand identities and market themselves to influencers and customers. She helps professionals create career paths and find fulfilling opportunities while advising organizations on how to create their best teams. 

Linda Dunbar, CEO Diversity Decoder

Linda Dunbar is chief executive and founder of Diversity Decoder and a PR/corporate communications consultant and executive with global Fortune 500 experience. She is uniquely qualified to help companies interpret this moment in history and current events for business and non-profit leaders. Diversity Decoder helps companies get diversity right when it comes to communications, advertising, and product. It helps companies avoid diversity disasters caused by insensitivity and lack of understanding, and respond effectively if and when it is too late for prevention.