How Leaders Can Create A Culture Of Psychological Safety

Aug 22, 2020

Psychological safety is a feature of team culture that leaders can and must create to be successful in the 21st century. In fact, some say it’s one of the most important leadership responsibilities of our time.

Where there is a shortage of psychological safety, teams choose silence over voice because the interpersonal risks are too high. In extreme cases, people will care more about looking bad by saying the wrong thing than failing the customer by not speaking up.

In this case, the amygdala is running the show. That means the part of the brain responsible for detecting threats is in charge and everything is seen through the lens of fear. Consequently, learning and collaboration are inhibited and critical thinking, creative insight, and problem solving are impaired.

The basis of psychological safety is trust and mutual respect. Leaders create ideal conditions for feelings of safety to grow when they inspire and coach their team, provide feedback, make excellence a rewarding experience, and set the stage for candor by making sure people know failure is inevitable.

Be this as it may, failure is not the biggest problem, it’s our response to failure that is the most problematic. Leaders must set the stage for open discussion about failure, by helping people shift from a belief that failure is a result of incompetence to failure is part of the pathway to success.

Leaders willing to be transparent about their own failures and strong enough to say, “I don’t know,” play a powerful role in engaging the hearts and minds of the people on their team.

A point often overlooked is that real failure is failing to learn the lessons failure yields. We gain nothing when we self-protect by choosing silence over voice, and that is exactly what people do when they fear being judged. Leaders can mitigate this problem by modeling a learning mindset. A learning mindset demonstrates humility, curiosity, and recognizes there is always more to learn.

With this in mind, psychological safety is not about being nice or relaxing quality standards. It’s about candor, productive disagreement, and exchange of ideas. It’s about seeking truth rather than looking for someone to blame. It’s about focused analysis with an eye to the future, not implementing short-sighted quick fixes.

It’s important to realize psychological safety does not imply over-processing. It’s a means of relating that promises a productive response that is appropriate, respectful, and offers a path forward.

Leaders must carry within their repertoire the empathy to set the stage for a healthy environment where people feel safe enough to speak up, the humility to invite participation, and the wisdom to listen and respond productively.

Leading by example in this way motivates people from the inside out to be productive team players, go the extra mile, and do the right thing.

Do you want more trust and mutual respect within your team? Register for my Zoom webinar “Team Coaching Training or Leaders,” taking place on Tuesday, September 29, 8:15 a.m. (CDT).

In this training you will learn:

  • The basis for creating psychological safety among your team

  • How to observe and respond to your team as a collective group and individual members

  • Techniques for listening, observing without biases, and learning what your team needs to be successful