Leadership Development And The Importance of Psychological Safety At Work

Oct 27, 2022 10 Min Read
Team members feels safe to share

Image is from pexels.com by @Thirdman

Boosts Psychological Safety by Investing in Leadership Development in Your Organisation.

When it comes to the workplace, psychological safety is one of the most important things an organisation can provide for its employees. After all, when employees feel safe, they are more likely to take risks and be innovative. This is why leadership development is so important. Leaders who develop the necessary skills can create a safer and more productive work environment for their employees.

Employees who feel comfortable enough to ask for help, give recommendations and have the guts to stand up against the status quo without fear of being ridiculed are likely to be more innovative. They’re also able to unlock the power of diversity and be highly adaptable to change – all critical qualities to have in a post-pandemic landscape.

So what makes a leader or workplace “safe”? And how can you develop these skills to create a better work environment for your team?

Let’s look at the benefits of psychological safety and how leadership development can help create a safer psychological work environment.

What is psychological safety, and why is it important in the workplace?

Psychological safety is the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for taking risks or admitting mistakes. This term was first coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy C. Edmondson in 1999. She defined it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.

Since then, psychological safety has become a key ingredient for high-performing teams. Google’s Project Aristotle, for example, found that psychological safety was the strongest predictor of team performance.

In fact, teams with higher psychological safety were more likely to be successful and less likely to have individuals leave Google. Not only that, but they’re more likely to harness the power of inclusion and creativity from their teammate’s diverse ideas. 

This has led to bringing in more revenue and having other executives rate them as being twice as effective as other Google employees. 

This can be summed up by the psychological safety belief of “If I make a mistake on our team, it is not held against me.

So why is psychological safety so crucial in the workplace? There are a few reasons:

●      When employees feel safe, they are more likely to take risks and be innovative.

●      A safe work environment allows for open communication and collaboration.

●      Employees who feel safe are more likely to stay with an organisation.

●      Creating a psychologically safe workplace can help an organisation attract and retain top talent.

“There’s no team without trust.” ― Paul Santagata, Head of Industry at Google.

What Are The Stages Of Psychological Safety?

According to Porchlight, there are four different stages of psychological safety that leaders must foster to create a safe work environment: They are:

  1. Safe To Be Includedfeeling like you belong on the team and are comfortable sharing your ideas.
  2. Safe To Learn: feeling like it’s okay to make mistakes and that you will not be ridiculed for doing so.
  3. Safe To Contribute: feeling like your opinion matters and that you can have an impact on the team, even if it’s not the same as everyone else.
  4. Safe To Challenge The Status Quo feeling like you can challenge how things are done and that your suggestions will be heard.

Leaders are setting the stage for success by focusing on creating a psychologically safe environment where everyone feels comfortable taking risks, speaking up, and being themselves. When you do, you’ll unlock the power of inclusion and creativity.

Psychological safety is the foundation upon which trust is built, and trust is essential for any team to function well.

How Leadership Can Foster Psychological Safety In The Workplace

Successful leaders must model the right behaviour, mindset, and atmosphere for their team to build psychological safety in the workplace. 

This enables and empowers other team members to buy into psychological safety and reinforces the expected behaviours of the team. 

When leaders do this, it creates a better work environment and allows the team to be successful. Here’s how you can do it:

●      Be open-minded and invite diverse perspectives: Be willing to see things from other people’s points of view and value their opinions, even if they differ from your own. This will encourage others to do the same and create an environment where everyone feels heard.

●      Encourage risk-taking and learning from mistakes: Let your team know it’s okay to make mistakes and that they won’t be ridiculed. This will create a safe environment for learning and growth.

●      Make sure everyone’s voice is heard: Make sure everyone on your team feels like their opinion matters and that they can impact the team. This will encourage them to speak up and contribute their ideas.

●      Challenge the status quo: Encourage your team to challenge how things are done and suggest new ideas. This will help you continuously innovate and improve how you do things.

Creating a psychologically safe environment will unlock the power of inclusion, risk-taking, innovation, and creativity and set your team up for success. 

Read more: Psychological Safety Unlocks The Potential of Diverse Teams

Drivers of Psychological Safety

Research conducted at Old Dominion University found that three things are the main drivers of psychological safety. They are:

●      Positive Leader Relations: feeling like the leader cares about you as a person and not just an employee.

●      Work-Design Characteristics:  feeling like the work is interesting and that you have the opportunity to learn and grow.

●      Positive Team Climate: feeling like the team is a supportive environment where people work together to support each other to achieve goals.

A positive team climate is the most critical factor in establishing psychological safety in a team and organisation. That is where team members genuinely care about each other’s well-being, value each other’s input, ideas, and contributions, and have a voice in how the work is undertaken.

Leaders who create a positive team culture with positive leadership by example that is supportive tend to have the most substantial impact on the psychological safety of a workplace. 

It also creates a more adaptable team to change, which is more valuable than ever in today’s rapidly changing world.

How Leadership Can Create An Environment Of Psychological Safety

During the pandemic and remote work movement, there has been a rapid shift away from the old-school authoritative leadership style in the past few years. A change is long overdue! Authoritarian leadership is detrimental to employees’ psychological safety and fosters a negative work attitude due to low levels of trust.

“In one study investigating employee experiences with speaking up, 85% of respondents reported at least one occasion when they felt unable to raise a concern with their bosses, even though they believed the issue was important.” ― Amy C. Edmondson.

Instead, a new leadership style is gaining widespread acceptance that fosters a psychologically safe workplace based on consultative and supportive leadership behaviours.

According to McKinsey, leaders can demonstrate specific behaviours that can increase the psychological safety of team members. It can be done by fostering a positive team climate – through consultative and supportive leadership.

Consultative Leadership And Psychological Safety

Using a consultative leadership approach allows leaders to consult with their team members, seek honest and authentic input, and take the team’s views on any issues involving them under advisement. This leadership behaviour has both a direct and indirect effect on the psychological safety of team members.

Supportive Leadership And Psychological Safety

A supporting leadership approach involves displaying a genuine concern for team members, not only as employees but also as people, and being supportive of them. Supportive leadership is indirect but substantially affects creating a positive culture and developing psychological safety in the organisation.

When team members see leadership displaying consultative and supportive leadership, it also often encourages them to behave in the same way towards each other, which further increases psychological safety.

What about Challenging Leadership behaviour?

Challenging leadership is a style that encourages employees to take risks, push themselves outside their comfort zones, and take on more than they initially think that they could. 

Challenging leaders make employees reflect on their own limiting beliefs related to their abilities. It also challenges them to exceed their expectations to unlock their true potential. This type of leadership empowers employees to express creativity and make changes in the workplace while seeking constant learning and self-improvement opportunities.

While challenging leadership can sometimes improve psychological safety, it can also hurt the workplace if there isn’t already a positive team environment in place.

“To accomplish meaningful results from facing fear, harness the resulting courage and plug it into a higher purpose to create motivation and impact for positive change, to drive continual development, and to drive sustainable and ongoing advancement and improvement.” A quote from First Comes Courage – Sonia McDonald.

So, how can leadership cultivate a climate of psychological safety within their team? 

Some other ways leaders can build psychological safety within their teams are:

–       Encouraging team members to give honest feedback without fear of reprisal.

–       Listening to team members’ suggestions and concerns openly, without judgement

–       Asking for help when needed and admitting mistakes.

–       Being transparent about decisions that affect the team.

–       Modelling the desired behaviour for the team.

–       Encouraging and rewarding risk-taking and creativity.

–       Building trust within the team by maintaining high confidence and following through on commitments.

–       Creating opportunities for team members to get to know each other personally.

–       Creating a safe environment where conflict can be constructively resolved

Why It Is Important To Develop Leaders At All Levels In The Organisation

Psychological safety at work isn’t only important for team members. Instead, it starts at the top of any organisation. When senior leaders show behaviours that champion and strengthen psychological safety, it leads to team leaders being more supportive, consultative, and challenging toward leadership.

That is why the most effective way to develop behaviour that boosts psychological safety is by investing in leadership development across all levels of the organisation.

However, just investing in development isn’t enough to guarantee success. Instead, it is essential to focus on addressing the skills that contribute to psychological safety in the workplace in leadership development programs.

While 83% of employers believe it is crucial to develop leadership skills at all levels, only 5% actually do so.

Yet, doing so can improve positive leadership behaviours and ultimately create an environment of psychological safety. This boosts turnover, increases team performance, and leads to higher staff retention.

Group dynamics and open-dialogue skills that focus on understanding different points of view are critical and the most acknowledged skills to develop positive leadership behaviours. 

But, there are many other skills that high-quality leadership programs can help develop, such as:

●      Self-awareness: understanding how your words and actions impact others.

●      Cultural awareness: being aware of and understanding the impact different cultures can have in the workplace.

●      Social relationship development: building strong relationships with team members based on trust and mutual respect.

●      Situational awareness: awareness of what is happening around you in the workplace and how it might impact your teams.

●      Unconscious bias: identifying and managing your personal biases so they don’t affect your decision-making.

●      Situational humility: being humble in different situations, so you can see things from other people’s perspectives

●      Sponsorship: using your influence to help others succeed.

These skills are essential for leaders at all levels to build psychological safety within their teams. As well as to create a workplace where people feel safe to take risks, be creative, and challenge the status quo.

Do you want to learn more about how you can develop these skills that contribute to workplace psychological safety? At LeadershipHQ, we would love to chat with you about how we can help your organisation build a culture of psychological safety. Our leadership programs are tailored to your organisational needs.

“While good leaders care about business impact, great leaders focus more on psychological impact.” ― Narayanan Palani.

Tips For Creating A Psychologically Safe Work Environment Of The Future

The future of work is ever-changing, and with that comes the need to adapt how we create psychologically safe workplaces. Here are a few tips:

1. Don’t just settle for one-time training programs

Instead, implement a widespread system of leadership development that focuses on psychological safety. When creating psychologically safe workplaces, one-time training programs aren’t enough. Instead, you need a system that continuously develops leaders at all levels and helps them build their skills to create a psychologically safe environment. After all, change doesn’t happen overnight.

2. Invest in leadership development programs that are engaging and immersive and lead to the eureka effect 

When it comes to leadership development programs, choosing engaging ones that lead to the “eureka” effect is essential. It is where people have an “aha!” moment and suddenly see things from a new perspective. 

This program helps leaders understand the importance of psychological safety and how to create it within their teams instead of just being theoretical.

Leadership development programs that lead to the eureka effect are more likely to stick with leaders and help them create a psychologically safe environment in the future.

3. Create processes that integrate development into leaders’ day-to-day schedules

One of the best ways to ensure leaders continuously develop the skills they need to create a psychologically safe environment is to integrate development into their daily schedules. This could involve setting aside time each week for leaders to reflect on their progress, receive feedback from team members, or participate in development activities. 

Final Thoughts

Creating a psychologically safe workplace isn’t easy, but it’s worth it. To be successful, you need to develop the right skills, mindsets, and behaviours within your team and organisation. This will help to create an environment where people feel safe to take risks, be creative, and challenge the status quo. And that’s what the future of work is all about.

This article was originally published in LeadershipHQ.

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Sonia is CEO of LeadershipHQ and has vast experience in organisational development, learning and development, facilitating, and leadership development. She is passionate about building long term partnerships with her clients and making sure she achieves the best results for their business and people.

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