SUMMARY: Culture can set the tone for an organization. Leaders can set the tone for culture. Questions are provided to help leaders identify potential risks as well as areas of strength and ideas for developing and maintaining a psychologically safe organizational culture.


Organizational culture is described as a pattern of basic assumptions invented, discovered, or developed by a given group. These assumptions are a mix of values, beliefs, meanings and expectations that group members hold in common and that they use as behavioral and problem-solving cues. The critical task is to support all leaders to determine which of these assumptions enhance and which could damage psychological health and safety among your workforce. Researchers have said, “In short, virtually every outcome variable in the field of occupational health psychology is empirically related to organizational leadership.”

When an organization has a psychologically safe culture, employee well-being, job satisfaction, and organizational commitment are all enhanced. Conversely, if the culture is negative it can undermine the effectiveness of even great programs or policies intended to support the workforce. If an organization has a culture of fear and constant chaotic urgency, it can create an environment in which burnout and low morale are common.

The above information was adapted from Guarding Minds at Work, which provides free tools and resources that can be used to assess and address the psychological safety of organizational culture and other workplace factors.

Key questions to ask

The following has been adapted from the work of Dr. Martin Shain and Deborah Connors. Dr. Martin Shain is principal of the Neighbour@Work Centre, which provides research, evaluation, policy development, training and education to improve the quality of the employment relationship. Deborah Connors company, Be Positive, offers workplace focuses on teaching leaders how to radically shift culture so employees can flourish. Deborah's contribution is adapted from her book A Better Place To Work: Daily Practices That Transform Culture.

These questions can help identify some areas to be addressed in your strategy to support a psychologically safe organizational culture. Asking these questions may also identify strengths that already exist in your organization.

  1. Assess your future goals as well as your current state:
    1. What do we want our organizational culture to be?
    2. Where are we? Where do we need to go?
    3. What do we believe in?
    4. How does this fit with our existing organizational purpose and vision?
    5. What is the most powerful action we can take right now? How can we work with what is available?
  2. Review the current efforts to support employee success and well-being in your workplace and answer these questions:
    1. Do we take a program approach or a cultural approach? (i.e. are we implementing stand-alone programs or are we focusing on efforts to improve the culture?)
    2. Are most efforts aimed downstream or upstream? (i.e. are we managing crises or are we looking upstream to see why these crises are happening?)
    3. Would I characterize our organization as having more conventional management practices or more transformational leadership practices? (i.e. is our senior management able to improve the culture or are they focused on problem solving?)
    4. In what ways can/should these efforts be shifted?
  3. To be sustainable, a psychologically safe organizational culture needs to be supported more broadly by an overall focus on and commitment to psychological health and safety. 20 Questions for Leaders About Psychological Health and Safety focuses on both policy and risk management questions.
  4. Leaders can have the most significant impact on organizational culture. To what extent have you ensured your managers and supervisors have the skills, abilities and resources to:
    •  Ask what is on someone's mind unobtrusively.
    •  Facilitate conversations and remove barriers to communication.
    •  Listen carefully to a person in distress.
    •  Develop effective plans to support employee success.
    •  Link employees to relevant and helpful resources.
    •  Follow up & follow through to ensure ongoing success of each employee.
    • If you are unsure about the answers to these questions, you may want to consider using the Psychologically Safe Leader Assessment tool for your leaders.
  5. Unaddressed conflict, bullying and harassment can also have a significant negative impact on organizational culture. Consider these questions:
    1. We have in place the means to identify:
      •  Situations of conflict and distress within the workplace.
      •  Patterns of negative conduct or ‘poisoned environments,’ including managers or others who:
        •  Lose their temper and shout at people
        •  Ridicule and humiliate others
        •  Use intimidation to enforce their will
        •  Exhibit discriminatory attitudes and/or conduct
        •  Avoid dealing with conflict or situations that have the potential to create conflict
    2. We have in place:
      •  A response plan to resolve such situations promptly, effectively, and sustainably, once identified.

    State Required Actions:

  6. Organizations also need to consider their relationships with outside service providers and customers might impact organizational culture.
    1. Third-party service providers
      •  Are aware of our commitment to provide a psychologically safe workplace
      •  Have in place the policies and procedures to comply with this requirement
    2. Customers/clients/patients
      •  Are aware of our commitment to provide a psychologically safe workplace for our employees
      •  We have policies and procedures in place to respond when customers/clients/patients don't comply with this requirement.

    State Required Actions:

Depending on the issues that may exist in your workplace, you may also benefit from the following free resources: