Cover Psychological Safety

How Psychological Safety Can Breed Success in Asia

James Rushworth, Managing Director of Profile Search & Selection, explains how businesses can create more effective teams and boost performance by building open cultures and fostering a sense of belonging.

In Asia’s fast-paced, highly-demanding working culture, results count. However, getting the right mix of talent and creating the environment most likely to ensure success is easier said than done. The challenge is compounded by changing demographics that mean workforces are increasingly likely to span from recent graduates to 60-year-olds. 

As a result, the value of ‘psychological safety’ can no longer be under-estimated.

It is based on a shared belief of the team environment as a ‘safe’ one within which an employee can show initiative – or take a risk – without fear of negative consequences for their status, such as ‘losing face’. In short, acceptance and respect for an individual breed positive emotions like trust, confidence, inspiration and higher self-esteem, from which spring more open-minded, resilient and motivated people and teams. Such a cultural fit also benefits employee retention and mental well-being.

Across Hong Kong, Singapore and mainland China, evidence is mounting to show why business leaders must embrace the opportunity to connect socially and foster trust amongst their staff.

Take our report on Working in Asia Pacific: Key HR and Leadership Priorities for 2019. Based on our research, the views of almost 3,000 HR and other professionals in the region show issues relating to psychological safety now feature among key people-related challenges. For example:

  • In Singapore and Hong Kong – Maintaining “employee engagement and morale” are key leadership issues at management level today 

  • In each of Singapore, Hong Kong and China – “Managing a multi-generational workforce” is expected to be among a top-three challenge by 2024

  • Across the region a “lack of opportunities to make a difference” across generations and gender is the second highest reason for employees considering a move in the near future

Three ways to make your team feel safe

Given that employees across different generations have varied expectations and views of the workplace, we believe managers need to prioritise efforts to increase employee engagement and motivation in several ways. 

1. Create constructive politics 

  • A lack of transparency combined with power struggles, bias and favouritism – shown by the report as factors manifesting themselves across the region – dent organisational performance due to higher stress levels and reduced faith in top management. 

  • Resulting employee cynicism also creates risk aversion and mistrust of each other’s motives. Change is difficult in such a culture, plus people will more likely leave a company with bad politics.

  • Yet our research shows a sense of belonging is an important motivator across generations, although less so in China compared with Singapore and Hong Kong.

  • Business leaders need to set the tone. Ways to shape a constructive working environment include: stamping out negative influences; building an open culture; encouraging interchange and team working; allowing scope for individuality; and involving people in creating a shared purpose at all levels.

2. Provide an open forum 

  • Organisations can play their part via a commitment to training, support and raising awareness among staff; employees may then also feel better equipped to help others. 

  • While work-related mental health and well-being issues are rising in Hong Kong, Singapore and China, the report shows a general reluctance for employees to divulge their feelings, either with line managers or colleagues.

  • Our research shows Singaporean culture as least open about, and accepting of, mental health issues. 

  • Although firms are making some progress, still only around one-quarter of people in each market feel their working environment engenders an open and supportive culture. Interestingly, China seems furthest along the road to a community-based integrated solution through access to medical professionals and on-site counselling, along with amended working practices. 

3. Develop soft skills among senior managers 

  • Developing softer skills is essential, especially given the emerging multi-generational workforce and influx of millennials over the coming years; management must respond to different needs and wants among employees. 

  • Our report reveals that managers in Hong Kong, Singapore and China are most likely to be rated as ‘excellent’ at Autonomy (empowering employees to make decisions), and most likely to be rated as ‘weak’ at Relatedness (connecting with employees on a personal and emotional level).

  • Chinese managers are perceived to reduce ambiguity and make employees feel less threatened by uncertainty by clearly communicating expectations, plans and changes.

  • The research also suggests that many managers across Asia – and especially junior ones – are relatively weak at fostering innovation through building an open culture. Connecting with staff on personal and emotional levels is another area in need of attention.


Creating a sense of psychological safety can lead to higher levels of engagement in your team, and in turn, better performance. It provides the motivation not only to confront daily challenges in the workplace, but also to seek out learning and development opportunities, a win for both employees and the business.


James Rushworth, Managing Director, Profile Search & Selection


May 2019