As a Leader, Can You Create Psychological Safety?

The new buzzwords in leadership circles today are “psychological safety” and “vulnerability.” If you can create a workplace that honors these twin poles, note leadership gurus, your employees will feel safe enough to innovate.

The new buzzwords in leadership circles today are “psychological safety” and “vulnerability.” If you can create a workplace that honors these twin poles, note leadership gurus, your employees will feel safe enough to innovate.

But that’s not all. That innovation and the ability—and agility—to pivot are key to thriving in today’s competitive, almost-post pandemic business climate.  

But few, if any, leaders know how to create psychological safety at work. They know even less about how to model the behaviors that foster such spaces. 

 What is Psychological Safety? 

 “Psychological safety is the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes,” notes The Center for Creative Leadership, a global provider of research-based executive education. At work, that includes not only how you are treated, but also how you treat others.  

Critical to psychological safety is vulnerability. This is scary emotional terrain in the workplace, especially for leaders.  

Vulnerability and Psychological Safety  

Too often in the past, vulnerability was seen as a sign of weakness. But thanks to the pandemic and the blurring of the line between personal and professional life, including quite literally, the stage has been set for it. 

What is vulnerability? Its hallmarks include uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure, writes Emma Seppälä, Ph.D., and Lecturer at the Yale School of Management, quoting social researcher Brené Brown.  

 To feel safe enough emotionally to admit you don’t know something and ask for help, or to make a suggestion that may sound silly, are all signs of a psychologically safe workplace. So, too, is challenging, “the way things have always been done” without fear of negative consequences, notes McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm.  

 Additionally, notes Seppälä, quoting Brown, something as simple, and human, as reaching out to an employee going through a personal crisis is also a sign of vulnerability.  

 Why Psychological Safety Matters 

When employees feel safe emotionally, they aren’t afraid to offer ideas that can lead to innovative solutions. Emotional safety also unleashes the power of diversity. Do you have a team member who is multi-cultural? Perhaps she has an idea that stems from her rich background but has been afraid to offer it for its differentness. A psychologically safe workplace tells her it’s okay and, in fact, it’s expected.  

Finally, organizations that foster psychologically safe environments learn how to build bench strength when it comes to adapting well to change. If the status quo isn’t working, employees will have permission to challenge it and offer new (and often innovative) solutions.   

What It Takes to Encourage Psychological Safety 

A positive workplace climate sets the stage for psychological safety, McKinsey & Company’s research shows. And that positive workplace climate begins at the top, with an organization’s leadership, aka, the practice owner and manager.  

It is critical that those at the top show their teams that it’s okay to ask for help. So, too, with admitting you don’t know something, or sharing a personal challenge. In so doing, you give employees permission to do the same and feel safe when doing it.  

If this is not your ordinary style of leadership, perhaps it is time to adjust it.  

The Leadership Styles that Best Foster Psychological Safety 

McKinsey & Company’s research outlines two leadership styles ideal for building a workplace that is psychologically safe.  

One leadership style is consultative. In this leadership style, you consult your staff and gather input from them. You also consider their viewpoints when it involves issues that affect them. 

Another leadership style conducive to psychological safety is supportive leadership. In this style, you demonstrate concern and support for team members as both employees and individuals.  

Four Stages of a Psychologically Safe Workplace 

Psychologically safe workplaces don’t just happen. There are four distinct stages an organization, or practice, will experience, writes Timothy Clark, PhD, in The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation.  

Those stages follow a universal pattern of human needs that is present in social situations, writes Clark. Those stages, which demand sequential rollout, are paraphrased below. 

Stage 1: To have a sense of belonging and acceptance. 

Stage 2: To feel safe enough to learn (and stumble as you learn). 

Stage 3: To feel safe enough to offer ideas and contribute, even if those ideas are wacky. 

Stage 4: To feel safe enough to challenge the status quo when it no longer works.  

Photo credit: © Ivan-balvan/iStock/Getty Images Plus via Getty Images



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