Coffee in the guild room and chat on Telegram – Small acts can help create a psychologically safe atmosphere

This year, Aalto University is prioritizing the nurturing of a supportive community as a key strategic theme. Central to this endeavor, understanding and prioritizing psychological safety is absolutely critical for building and maintaining a thriving academic environment..
Four people have coffee outside, smile and wave to camera.
Coffee outside with friends. Sakari Heiskanen / Aalto University 2024.

This year, Aalto University is prioritizing the nurturing of a supportive community as a key strategic theme. Central to this endeavor, understanding and prioritizing psychological safety is absolutely critical for building and maintaining a thriving academic environment.

Studies have demonstrated that psychological safety not only increases commitment to work but also reduces the risk of fatigue and enhances job satisfaction, highlighting its significance in academic and professional settings.

But what exactly is psychological safety? At Aalto, it is understood as encompassing feelings of trust and belonging, coupled with a drive to learn and contribute to the community. It involves the freedom to express oneself without fear of negative repercussions affecting oneself or one’s situation.

Psychological safety also forms the basis for creativity and innovation, and boosts both learning and productivity. This is especially critical in a research and educational setting.

Fostering safety in learning environments

Risto Sarvas, Professor of Practice and Director of the Information Networks program, became acutely aware of the importance of psychological safety in the post-pandemic era.

"The students appeared disengaged. We had to rethink how we engage students and, after discussions with a select group of students, we recognized the necessity of creating a safer, more communicative environment," says Sarvas.

This insight prompted a proactive effort to weave psychological safety into various aspects of university life, ensuring that both students and faculty feel confident and valued in their interactions.

"Feeling safe to express ourselves in class changes how we learn and interact," says Iida Saaristomaa, an Information Networks MSc student.

This sentiment aligns with the idea that psychological safety is important not just for personal comfort, but as a cornerstone of educational excellence.

Teachers learn from the students

Iida Saaristomaa points out the significance of presence and availability.

"My positive experiences are from courses where the teaching staff are approachable and easy to communicate with because they make an effort to be available. Conversely, I've had negative experiences when the staff were inaccessible, and I was unclear about the expectations."

Risto Sarvas strives to enhance accessibility, shifting from email to Telegram, where he hosts a weekly chat room on Thursdays. This platform choice reflects his commitment to meet students where they are, making it easier for them to reach out and engage.

"In addition, since 2020, I have been making coffee in the guild room every Thursday. Students see me there, which makes it easier for them to approach me."

Sarvas also notes that his understanding of psychological safety continues to evolve through interactions with the students.

"When we celebrated the 25th anniversary of our training program, we had a joint party with the guild, with two students serving as the masters of ceremonies. They began the whole thing by informing us about who the harassment coordinators were for the event. It's a practical demonstration of emphasizing psychological safety," Sarvas explains.

Implementing a culture of safety

For University Lecturer Satu Rekonen, establishing a psychologically safe environment starts with how educators communicate openness and mutual respect from the very beginning of the course.

"From a teacher’s perspective, the most critical aspect in a teaching setting is creating a learning space where being an expert or having all the right answers isn't necessary, and asking questions is encouraged," Rekonen explains.

"It’s important that as teachers, we clearly articulate and demonstrate these principles, establishing the rules and desired behaviors at the beginning of each course. These guidelines mirror those of safer spaces, which promote mutual respect and a curiosity about diverse viewpoints. As role models, it's essential that we embody these values."

In her classes, Rekonen employs techniques she's crafted to cultivate psychological safety within groups. Her doctoral research, which involved interviews with master's students engaged in a multidisciplinary and multicultural project course, underscored the importance of psychological safety for teams tackling complex issues that demand collective creativity.

"They all recognized the need for deeper discussions on how their contributions and roles were viewed by others, yet no one felt brave enough to initiate these conversations within their teams. I realized the need for a structure that would foster reflective dialogue among team members, allowing them to understand and reflect on their own roles within the project. The 'I like, I wish' technique is what I developed to ensure a safe and systematic environment for teams to exchange feedback about their roles. I introduced this method back in 2011, and it has been gaining traction ever since. It's revealing in terms of how team members see me, what they appreciate about my contributions, and what areas I could focus on more. I believe that such discussions are vital for nurturing students' professional identities," Rekonen shares.

Strengthening safety through leadership

For psychological safety to thrive, it must be systematically integrated into university operations.

Risto Sarvas emphasizes the importance of continuity in this process: "It's not about isolated initiatives; it's about creating a continuous culture of open dialogue and feedback."

Sarvas stresses the importance of embedding these practices across all student and faculty touchpoints, from admission through to alumni relations, ensuring that psychological safety permeates every aspect of university life.

Effective leadership is crucial for sustaining a culture of psychological safety. Both Risto Sarvas and Satu Rekonen highlight the role of university management in leading by example.

"Management must actively promote and model psychological safety," Sarvas states.

This approach is crucial for embedding long-term changes that support a safe and dynamic academic environment, where all community members feel empowered to contribute meaningfully.

However, community, psychological safety, and trust don't just emerge on their own; they require active participation from everyone in the community. This is especially true in an international setting like Aalto University, where goodwill alone is insufficient.

Discover more about fostering psychological safety in teaching environments, small groups, and informal settings, and explore the research underpinning its importance. Learn more here.

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