Employees who feel safe to speak up in the workplace and take risks without fear of being blamed or criticized report feeling 2.1 times more motivated, 2.7 times happier, and 3.3 times more enabled to reach their full potential at work. When leaders successfully build this feeling—known as “psychological safety”—among their workforce, attrition risk is greatly reduced.

According to a new report by Boston Consulting Group (BCG), 12% of employees with the lowest levels of psychological safety said they were likely to quit within a year. But when psychological safety is high, only 3% of employees are at risk of quitting. The report, titled Psychological Safety Levels the Playing Field for Employees, is being released today.

Empathetic Leadership is the Foundation

Based on a survey of 28,000 professionals across 16 countries, the report also shows that empathetic leadership—a style of leadership that demonstrates an understanding of and respect for the perspectives, emotions, and life situations of team members—is a key driver of psychological safety and its resulting benefits.

“Collective buy-in from the team is important, but leaders have an outsize impact when it comes to building psychological safety,” said Nadjia Yousif, chief diversity officer at BCG and a coauthor of the report. “They set the tone by being role models and signaling what behaviors will be rewarded and what won’t be tolerated. Psychological safety can flourish only if it’s driven from the top.”

Psychological Safety Is Especially Important for Diverse Groups

The positive effects of psychological safety are particularly pronounced among women, people of color, LGBTQ+ employees, people with disabilities, and people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

The report finds that when leaders successfully create psychological safety at work, retention increases by more than four times for women and for employees who identify as Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC); by five times for people with disabilities; and by six times for LGBTQ+ employees. This is compared with an increase of two times in retention for men not in those groups (that is, white, non-LGBTQ+ men with no disability).

Conversely, in environments where psychological safety is low, members of diversity groups have a higher risk of attrition relative to other employees. For example, 18% of LGBTQ+ employees in the bottom 30% of the psychological safety spectrum are at risk of attrition, compared with just 12% of straight and cisgender employees. By comparison, for those in the top 30% of psychological safety, the attrition risk gap between groups narrows, resulting in a 3% attrition risk for all.

What Empathetic Leaders Do Right

Building a culture of psychological safety starts at the top. BCG’s report shares tactics that leaders can pursue to cultivate psychological safety, including:

  • Formalize time for sharing and learning. At the start of meetings, carve out a few minutes to let people engage with one another as humans first.
  • Hold regular team reflections or “retrospectives.” Provide opportunities to discuss what the team is doing well and how to improve.
  • Challenge ideas, not people. When delivering feedback, ensure that any criticism focuses on the quality of the work, not the person who did the work.
  • Be open and authentic. Leaders should candidly share their own mistakes and lessons learned with the team.

“The benefits of a diverse workplace are realized only when employees feel safe to take risks and share new ideas,” said Gretchen May, global director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at BCG and a coauthor of the report. “Fostering psychological safety takes work, and it will be difficult at times. But the effort pays big dividends.”

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