The Art of Breaking Down Hierarchies and Nurturing Psychological Safety in Philippine Workplaces

Psychological Safety

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Respect for one’s elders is deeply ingrained in Filipino culture. This is demonstrated each time children ask for their parents’ and grandparents’ hands in the time-honored tradition of the mano, or when one calls their elder sister or brother as ate or kuya, respectively. This respect extends to people of authority such as political and religious leaders.

Filipinos also observe hierarchy in the workplace. Even in local offices of multinational companies, which usually have less rigid organizational structures, it is not unusual to hear more senior employees being addressed as “sir” or “ma’am.”

This level of respect is typical of countries with a high power distance culture where social groups accept and expect strong hierarchical relationships. According to Human Capital Realisation, a boutique consulting firm specializing in Human Resources and People and Culture, the Philippines has a Power Distance Index of 94. This means that Filipinos are more willing to accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. In contrast, Australia, New Zealand, and Austria have Low Power Distance Index numbers, so hierarchical structures are more compressed in these countries.

“High-power distance cultures are usually more stable and predictable, kinder to the elderly, and less subject to family breakdown and conflict,” says Dr. Peter Brace, a psychological safety consultant and Human Capital Realisation’s co-founder and CEO.

Workplaces in high power distance cultures usually follow what Peter calls a “command and control” model. He adds that, “it may be easier to predict and plan, and to get things done when the business environment is stable,” in these workplaces.

The Need for Psychological Safety in the Workplace

On the other hand, there is also a growing need for workplaces to offer employees psychological safety in these uncertain times. In this kind of environment, employees will be more engaged and will participate more fully in team discussions. They will feel more supported to be innovative and to learn new ways of working, even challenging their leaders if they feel this will help the team. The outcomes of high psychological safety include improved mental and emotional wellbeing, as well as improved performance in all kinds of teams.

In the 2018 Great Place to Work® Asia Insights report, we defined a psychologically safe environment as, “one where interpersonal trust exists, and mutual respect is given daily. It is an environment where people are comfortable being themselves.”

Three key factors drive psychological safety in organizations: the behavioral integrity of leaders, having supportive organizational practices, and the quality of relationship networks within the organization.

Trust is the foundation of any great workplace. This is why employees tend to trust the organization more and feel secure within it when management consistently delivers on its promises. Moreover, there are higher positive feelings of psychological safety among employees and teams when leaders are perceived as role models, trusted to act on feedback, and are for the good of the people.

For example, anyone can speak with and run on coffee dates with Yani Hornilla-Donato, Country Manager of Canva Philippines, which is #1 in Asia’s Best Workplaces 2021 Small and Medium Category. The company also has regular one-on-one check-ins between employees and team leads to promote an open, honest, and constructive conversation to encourage questions, concerns, or feedback.

Meanwhile, companies with supportive organizational practices are those that train and develop employees and encourage them to have a healthy work-life balance. In many parts of Asia, employees seek training and development to further themselves, making it imperative for organizations to nurture their people if they wish to attract talent in the region. High psychological safety improves learning outcomes by making it more likely that learning will be applied – thus building team performance and improving the return on the training investment.

Balancing one’s life and work is also crucial as remote work during the pandemic blurred the line between the two. Focusing on psychological safety will improve employees’ wellbeing and mental health, leading to better employee retention and employer reputation.

Three-time Philippines Best Workplaces awardee Ingram Micro is a primary example of a company that places great importance on mental health. It offers a confidential and voluntary talk therapy service called DIAL TALK to support employees with personal or work-related issues that may impact their well-being, work performance, safety, individual and workplace morale, and psychological health.

Finally, organizations with high-quality relationship networks with leaders and colleagues have employees who genuinely care about each other. This is an especially important factor in the Philippines where a Milieu poll in Southeast Asia revealed that Filipinos care the most about having friends at work, with 91% of them responding positively to this compared to the likes of Indonesia (83%), Thailand (80%), and Singapore (74%). A feeling of inclusion and belonging at work is a major contributor to psychological safety, so organizations in the Philippines may have a head start!

Psychological safety is even more crucial as organizations face rapid change and constant disruptions such as the COVID-19 pandemic. A team’s collective effort is required to enable them to come up with creative solutions to challenges that come their way.

"We observed that employees more consistently experience psychological safety at Best Workplaces™ than in other organizations. We found that psychological safety drives people to contribute more, to take more risks, and perform better as a team—more than other factors such as remuneration, recognition, and development opportunities," says Antoniette Talosig, Managing Partner at Great Place to Work® Philippines.

Fostering Psychological Safety in Organizations with a High Power Distance Culture

Naturally, organizations that run on a “command and control” model might have difficulty adapting to the idea of prioritizing psychological safety.

“New ways of working introduce uncertainty and doubt. And if a leader and her team are used to deciding action based on clear consensus unified around the voice of authority, then everyone might feel worried! But it is only through uncertainty that change, growth, and improvement can happen,” says Peter, “and high psychological safety enables teams to find that positive side of uncertainty.”

He adds that when leaders finally understand the benefit of openly sharing diverse ideas, their fears will lead to excitement, engagement, and excellence in team performance.

Transforming a company with a high power distance culture takes hard work. But building a psychologically safe organization pays dividends in the long term. “When there is psychological safety, employees are proud to tell others that they work in your company, and they look forward to coming to work each day. We found that those who believed that their company was a great place to work also rated their organization high on psychological safety,” says Antoniette.

How Leaders can Build Psychological Safety at Work

Leaders play an important role in establishing psychological safety in their organization. Here are several ways to achieve this:

1. Conduct a sense check to identify gaps

Since the behavioral integrity of leaders is a key driver in psychological safety, regular open dialogue between managers and employees, 360-feedback, and surveys like the Trust Index™ survey will give them a clearer picture of the quality of the relationship between leaders and employees. These measures will also shed light on key issues that will allow leaders to take concrete steps in addressing gaps in the organization.

2. Invest time in clear action plans for culture shaping

Since the behavioral integrity of leaders is a key driver in psychological safety, regular open dialogue between managers and employees, 360-feedback, and surveys like the Trust Index™ survey will give them a clearer picture of the quality of the relationship between leaders and employees. These measures will also shed light on key issues that will allow leaders to take concrete steps in addressing gaps in the organization.

3. Define and clarify desired behaviors, and provide role models

Both leaders and employees will play an integral role in building a psychologically safe workplace. Because of this, organizations need to identify employee advocates who can deliver key messages, and demonstrate desired behaviors. Meanwhile, leaders can harness the power of storytelling to inspire employees to follow suit. In addition, organizations must nurture the relationship between leaders and employees through various platforms and opportunities while rewarding the right behaviors that lead to desired results.

4. Adopt a long-term view of success

It will take time for a new company culture to take traction. This is why organizations must both celebrate quick wins to keep everyone motivated while staying committed to sustainable efforts over the long term to ensure their success. Once again, leaders will set the stage and lead the way in this transformation.

Let Psychological Safety Grow Within Your Organization

Psychological safety can thrive even in organizations with a high power distance culture. And improving psychological safety starts with finding out where you are now. Contact us today to learn how our employee surveys can help you build a psychologically safe workplace that’s built on trust and respect.

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Philippines Best Workplaces™ 2024 Methodology

Employees respond to over **60 survey questions** describing the extent to which

their organization creates a great place to work For All™️.

85% of the evaluation is based on what employees say about their experiences of trust and reaching their full human potential as part of their organization, no matter who they are or what they do.

Great Place to Work® analyzes these experiences relative to each organization’s size, workforce make up, and what’s typical in their industry. The remaining 15% of the rank is based on an assessment of all employees’ daily experiences of innovation, company values, and the effectiveness of their leaders to ensure these are consistently experienced.

To be considered, companies had to meet the Great Place to Work-Certified™

standard. Trust Index©️ survey results are accurate to a 95% confidence level with a 5% margin of error or better to ensure the survey results truly represent all employees.

We review any anomalies in survey responses, news and financial performance to ensure there aren’t any extraordinary reasons to believe we couldn’t trust a company’s survey results.

Companies with 10 to 99 people were considered for the Small category.

Companies with 100 employees or more were considered for the Medium category.

Companies exceeding 1,000 employees were considered for the Large category.


To be eligible for the World’s Best Workplaces list, a company must apply and be named to a minimum of 5 national Best Workplaces lists within our current 58 countries, have 5,000 employees or more worldwide, and at least 40% of the company’s workforce (or 5,000 employees) must be based outside of the home country. Extra points are given based on the number of countries where a company surveys employees with the Great Place to Work Trust Index©, and the percentage of a company’s workforce represented by all Great Place to Work surveys globally. Candidates for the 2017 Worlds Best Workplaces list will have appeared on national workplaces lists published in September 2016 through August 2017.