Using Leadership Development to Foster Psychological Safety

A man sits on a couch in a work environment, talking to another employee.

In a psychologically safe workplace, employees can share ideas, think creatively, take interpersonal risks, and fail without fear. Speaking up isn't risky. Leaders encourage employees to ask for help instead of penalizing them. As a result, individuals innovate more and accomplish more, and teams are more successful. Unfortunately, many company cultures fall short of this ideal — even when the consequences of not speaking up are dangerous or even deadly. Consider the Volkswagen emissions scandal or the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. It's easy to assume negligence on the part of those who didn't speak up, but it's more likely their silence indicated a larger, more systemic problem.

According to one Gallup poll, only three out of ten employees feel their opinions count at work. A DecisionWise study of over 100,000 US employees found that 34 percent don't share their ideas or otherwise remain silent because they fear retribution in the form of criticism, demotion, or job loss. Surprisingly, this reticence goes both ways. A survey by Harris Poll found that a staggering 69 percent of managers feel some degree of discomfort communicating with employees — even about relatively mundane subjects.

Addressing what is clearly a widespread multifaceted issue is not just a matter of changing organizational culture or building diverse teams. Both of those approaches represent a good start, but neither goes far enough. High-performing organizational cultures aren't necessarily respectful or receptive to new ideas. Likewise, diversity in the workplace isn't a panacea because more diversity doesn't automatically lead to greater inclusivity.

Advancing psychological safety in the workplace requires building an atmosphere of intense trust, and that trust has to come from the top down. It's up to leaders to help employees feel safe expressing themselves, whether they're proposing an idea, explaining a concept, offering up feedback, or pointing out an error. This isn't necessarily easy to do in organizations where rivalry and reactivity are ingrained in the culture, making leadership development essential in fostering psychological safety in the workplace.

Leaders play a critical role in promoting psychological safety, but only when they recognize how their behaviors and choices impact employee behavior and organizational behavior. Therefore, every executive's leadership development goals should include developing a better understanding of the impact of psychological safety in the workplace. Columbia Business School's Advanced Management Program explores the principles of psychological safety in the third module — but it's up to leaders to put those principles into practice.

What Psychological Safety Is and Isn't

In brief, psychological safety is the feeling that one can express oneself, contribute, and take risks without worry or fear. When someone feels psychologically safe in the workplace, at home, or in another environment, they trust the people around them and feel trusted and respected. They don't have to worry about their thoughts and ideas being ignored, shot down, picked apart, or belittled — even when those ideas aren't fully formed or go against the grain.

Our understanding of the importance of psychological safety isn't new. People associate psychological safety with Harvard professor and researcher Amy Edmondson because her research into psychological safety in the workplace, TED Talks, and 2018 book on creating fearless organizations helped popularize the concept. However, organizational scholars were researching the effects of psychological safety as far back as the 1960s. William A. Khan reignited interest in the idea in a 1990 article describing three psychological conditions that affected engagement and disengagement in workplaces — one of which was safety.

"Workplaces are as unique as people, which is why levels of psychological safety vary both from organization to organization and from person to person."

Awareness of the importance of psychological safety in the workplace has since flourished as organizations looked for new strategies for changing workplace culture and improving employee satisfaction and engagement. A 2015 Google study, which found that teams with high rates of psychological safety were more innovative and performed better, drove interest in the topic. Influencer Brené Brown, who asserts that psychological safety is the number one factor in high-performing teams, has also been instrumental in introducing people to the concept. And the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement prompted many companies to think critically about whether employees felt physically, intellectually, and emotionally safe enough to participate fully at work.

"All leaders need to create psychological safety, need to communicate up and down the organization, need to be able to see what’s going on out there, need to be able to hear uncomfortable information and not lash out at the person bringing it and so forth," says Rita Gunther McGrath, faculty at Columbia Business School Executive Education and one of the world’s top experts on strategy and innovation.

The challenge is that some organizations equate psychological safety with communication when the former is much more complex and requires continuous reinforcement. Business leaders can give their employees space to express themselves or share ideas without actually promoting psychological safety. Other organizations equate safety and comfort, and their employees stop speaking up or sharing different points of view to avoid making others uncomfortable. Still, others make the erroneous assumption that psychological safety is naturally present in companies with diverse teams, receptive general management, and positive organizational cultures.

Levels of Psychological Safety Vary Significantly from Workplace to Workplace

Workplaces are as unique as people, which is why levels of psychological safety vary both from organization to organization and from person to person. A lot of factors come into play — it's much more complicated than respectful treatment vs. demeaning treatment. Consider how different organizational environments can contribute to employee stress or how some people thrive under stress while others buckle (two areas Columbia Business School Associate Professor of Management and Faculty Director of the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Center for Leadership and Ethics Management Modupe Akinola studies). How leaders respond to employee stress or distress can impact levels of psychological safety. Conscious and unconscious biases can affect organizational culture and erode psychological safety.

Psychological Safety in Individuals

There's evidence to suggest that people who work in the same environment may experience vastly different levels of psychological safety. Self-verification theory may play a role in whether individual employees perceive themselves as psychologically safe. People respond differently to diversity or the lack thereof, feelings of low status, and discrimination in the workplace (whether subtle or overt) based on a wide variety of factors. For instance, employees who aren't part of a majority group — social, racial, or otherwise — may be hesitant to express themselves fully or to express dissenting opinions.

"Organizations that prioritize psychological safety as part of corporate strategy have a competitive advantage."

Psychological Safety on Teams

Google's massive study of psychological safety and team effectiveness found team-wide psychological safety was quantifiable based on metrics related to risk tolerance, rejection, support, and respect. Individual behaviors can promote psychological safety in teams or erode it. Furthermore, the impact of negative team culture can undermine the positive effects of leadership on engagement, openness, and morale.

Psychological Safety Across Industries

Given how different organizational culture can be from industry to industry, it should come as no surprise that some fields have a better track record of promoting psychological safety in workplaces than others. Education professionals, for example, have an acute understanding of the importance of psychological safety because they see the effects of psychological safety on student engagement, participation, and outcomes. That's not to say every school prioritizes psychological safety in staff, but there's ample research into how a respectful and trusting institutional climate can positively affect teacher engagement and efficacy, as well as potentially reduce rates of turnover.

Meanwhile, studies of financial services executives reveal that fear is a dominant driving force in that industry, and stories of conduct suggest a culture in which speaking out is ineffectual. Healthcare has also traditionally been a field in which speaking out was penalized, but many organizations now acknowledge that making it hard for doctors and nurses to advocate for themselves and their patients, to express doubt, and especially to acknowledge mistakes (given the threat of lawsuits) has a net negative impact on clinician well-being. Some have implemented anonymous reporting mechanisms that let doctors, nurses, and other providers share without fear of reprisal.

It's no secret that Silicon Valley has issues building diverse teams and changing organizational culture to meet the needs of diverse employees. Women and minorities may feel psychologically unsafe in an industry in which a 10-page anti-diversity screed can not only make the rounds on the company listserv but also go viral. Some women find they have to calibrate their personalities to be heard and respected in tech; they can't be themselves without their expertise coming into question. And leadership challenges abound in environments where project direction is continuously subject to change and years of work experience are no guarantee of stability.

These and other issues likely persist because so many organizations haven't taken the benefits of psychological safety seriously. However, there's a growing body of evidence backing up the assertion that employees can't do their best work unless they feel supported, trusted, and free to contribute without fear of judgment.

The Benefits of Supporting Psychological Safety in the Workplace

There are numerous reasons to prioritize psychological safety. Companies with leaders that promote psychological safety tend to have more engaged, resilient, and creative employees and more innovative teams. Those organizations are more productive, more agile, and have lower rates of turnover. Numerous studies link psychological safety to better organizational health and team effectiveness.

As global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company put it in a report on leadership's role in promoting psychological safety, "When employees feel comfortable asking for help, sharing suggestions informally, or challenging the status quo without fear of negative social consequences, organizations are more likely to innovate quickly, unlock the benefits of diversity, and adapt well to change."

Simply put, psychological safety is a performance enabler. Organizations that prioritize psychological safety as part of corporate strategy have a competitive advantage.

How Leaders Can Foster Psychological Safety in the Workplace

Building psychological safety means proactively creating a work environment where employees feel comfortable sharing ideas that go against the grain — even when those ideas might challenge a leader's perspective — and safe taking risks that might not pan out. There's no room for a leader-as-high-commander mentality. Everyone needs to feel like they have a voice and space to experiment.

Fostering that feeling takes time and effort. There are many strategies leaders can employ to promote psychological safety in the workplace, most of which fall into one of five silos.

Cultivating Understanding

It's not enough to create space for communication or innovation. Leaders must understand why employees feel safe or unsafe speaking up, making mistakes, experimenting, or innovating before they can foster a greater degree of psychological safety. Encouraging employees to explore their past experiences and personal motivations is a good first step. Some leaders find one-on-one meetings or direct observation are the best tools for cultivating understanding. Others leverage technological solutions — e.g., anonymous polls or sentiment analysis of the company intranet — to better understand team culture and engagement. Only then can a leader strategically address issues related to psychological safety.

Promoting Positive Team Climate

Leaders can encourage stronger, more trusting employee-manager relationships and peer relationships by encouraging vulnerability. This requires creating a team, department, or organization-wide culture in which people can share and discuss mistakes and failures without fear of reprisal and ask for help or share controversial ideas without being judged. However, keep in mind that the goal isn't to quell all conflict but rather to guide conflict in a positive direction that can lead to increased team participation and innovation.

Positive Leader Relations

Employees need to know they have the support of leaders to feel psychologically safe. Being very accessible, listening actively, and modeling candor are vital elements of that. Having regular one-on-ones and weekly office hours ensures there's space for employees to raise concerns or ask questions they might not want to discuss in an all-hands team meeting.

"Fostering psychological safety in the workplace doesn't mean employees are free to push the boundaries of ethical behavior."

Leadership Messaging

Walking the walk is just as important as talking the talk because employees hear what leaders say and observe what they do in the real world. Leaders must demonstrate openness to ideas, tolerance for failure, trust in difficult situations, and patience. They can make employees feel more comfortable with uncertainty by demonstrating their own fallibility. "I miss things if you don't communicate them to me" is both an invitation and a reminder that mistakes happen.

Continuous Reinforcement

Promoting psychological safety in a workplace — or any environment — is a never-ending process. New hires, changing organization culture, shifts in team diversity, and mergers can shift team culture in an instant. It's up to leaders to continue inviting open communication, listening without judgment, modeling safe behavior, and promoting cultural cohesion day in and day out.

Which Skills are Most Important for Leaders to Develop?

In the report linked above, McKinsey & Company found that employees who see their organizations invest in leadership development are 64 percent more likely to rate senior management as inclusive. The caveat is that c-suite executives and other leaders have to choose the right skills to nurture in leadership development and executive education programs to have a measurable impact on psychological safety.

Open Dialogue Skills

Effective leaders make sure employees feel comfortable sharing suggestions formally and informally, asking for help, and challenging the status quo. They do a lot more listening than talking, and when they do respond to employee concerns and ideas, they do so thoughtfully in a way that promotes continued trust.

Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is an important component of leadership development as it relates to psychological safety. Business leaders must be aware of their own reactions and behaviors and how they support (or fail to support) organizational outcomes. Self-awareness is especially important when challenging situations necessitating rapid responses arise because it curbs the kind of insensitive or careless reactivity that can jeopardize psychological safety.

Cultural Awareness

Culture affects how people behave in the workplace, and effective leaders recognize that multiculturalism, when supported, respected, and cultivated, leads to innovation. Ensuring that team members value different cultural viewpoints and opinions is key. Leaders need to embrace a global perspective and be open to different ways of thinking. Employees need to feel comfortable being themselves before they'll feel comfortable expressing themselves.

Active Listening

Active listening involves mindfully concentrating on what is said versus passively hearing until it's time to talk again. Leaders who listen mindfully build trust, strengthen team bonds, and boost morale. Honing this skill takes practice. A leader might schedule regular one-on-ones, open retrospectives, and group vent sessions, making a point of respectfully listening to everything said without interjecting.

Situational Awareness

Situational awareness as it relates to psychological safety involves being cognizant of not only project objectives and progress but also people and their moods. Leaders should always keep an eye out for both issues (e.g., team members who are in distress or holding back) and opportunities (e.g., to give quieter or more introverted team members space to share).

Awareness of Unconscious Bias

Fostering psychological safety in the workplace doesn't mean employees are free to push the boundaries of ethical behavior. Leaders need to be aware of their own unconscious biases and recognize the manifestations of unconscious biases in others so they can curb biased behaviors, promote ethical standards, identify when people feel unsafe, and ensure everyone feels respected.

Situational Humility

Employees are more prone to risk-taking and asking for help when they work with leaders willing to admit that they don't have all the answers and sometimes make mistakes. Leaders can model situational humility by asking questions that prompt employees to demonstrate expertise and talking openly about their own failures.

Sponsorship

A survey by Randstad and Ipsos Public Affairs found that 28 percent of respondents felt "investing in employees’ careers through training, professional development, or continuing education" was one of the most effective engagement tools. Leaders in psychologically safe organizations tend to enable others’ success ahead of their own, demonstrating not only that they value employees but also that they trust them to grow.

How Columbia Business School's Advanced Management Program Prepares Participants to Foster Psychological Safety

McKinsey & Company writes that "fostering psychological safety at scale begins with companies’ most senior leaders developing and embodying the leadership behaviors they want to see across the organization." That's easier said than done, which is why your leadership development goals should include nurturing the skills that empower you to lead inclusively and create an organizational culture in which people can express themselves without fear.

Columbia Business School's prestigious Advanced Management Program offers participants a holistic education that includes a deep dive into leadership skills necessary to mobilize teams around a shared vision. Participants enrolled in the 22-week Advanced Management Program study not only strategic intuition, decision-making processes, change management, and negotiation, but also how to lead inclusively and promote psychological safety. These and other topics are explored in 50+ lectures by renowned Columbia Business School faculty, industry experts, and influencers plus experiential learning sessions, personal assessments, and individual and group coaching sessions. It's an experience unlike any other, and alumni exit the program with action plans to address current challenges in their organizations.

Are you a senior executive ready to implement complex change in your organization by empowering the people you lead to be more innovative, creative, and bold? Apply today.

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