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Leading Psychological Safety in Teams

The challenges in creating psychological safety are in some ways more complex for managers because they not only need to lead the process, but also lead themselves in the initiation of the process.

In a recent column, I penned some thoughts on A Psychological Safety Primer. This week I want to go beyond those basics and outline some of the essentials for managers to engender not only a safer, but also a higher-performing work environment. An example of the potential upside for performance takes the shape of increasingly agile teams that are empowered to tackle challenges more rapidly by circumventing the problems associated with highly bureaucratic or overly rigid organisational structures.

Yet such teams require managers who can enable autonomy and innovation by creating psychologically safe environments. This is not something that can be managed by fiat or a speech from the CEO exhorting staff to be more innovative. Rather, it requires team leaders — often lower and middle managers — who can engender the right climate by role modelling expected behaviours. Behaviours that include care for the wellbeing of fellow team members, valuing the contribution of others, and encouraging team members to provide input into how objectives can be delivered.

The benefits which flow from such psychologically safe environments are even stronger during periods of change, disruption, or systemic risk — think Covid, an industry in the decline phase of its life cycle, or a company facing existential threats from any of the factors in a PESTLE framework.

Depending on the approach taken by managers, and the results will likely fall into one of four key modes of organisational culture:

  1. Apathy Mode: when managers fail to consult, support, or challenge their team, their employees will often be left uncomfortable with their manager and each other. The result is that they will be reluctant to seek help, consult, or even engage with the work at hand. This leads to feelings of disengagement, and in the long run will result in decreased motivation and poor performance.
  2. Easy Mode: when managers are a little too consultative, provide too much scaffolding, and do not set ambitious targets, employees can be lulled into easy mode. The problem is that while people may feel safe, they also experience decreased ambition to challenge assumptions and established ways of thinking because it is easier to sit back and let the manager lead all interactions. Such teams tend to prioritise internal congeniality over driving the business forward or providing high levels customer satisfaction.
  3. Anxiety Mode: when managers neither consult nor support, yet push their team for high performance, employees will invariably experience heightened anxiety. Like apathy, there will be decreased motivation to seek help, but unlike apathy, anxiety mode brings feelings of isolation and even fear. Not only is this harmful to employee mental health, but it also damages organisational performance as workers will tend to keep ideas to themselves and staff turnover will be high.
  4. Goldilocks Mode: when managers consult, support, and challenge their team, employees are more likely to feel capable of rising to the challenges of work. They are energised by engagements with stakeholders and are more willing to take the calculated risks necessary for innovative work. Employees in this zone will not only be more likely to seek help, but to offer assistance to others.

Leading Safety

I will reiterate a point I have made before, but which the misconceptions that abound in organisation level discussions and in the management literature make it necessary to continually labour. Management is not leadership.

The former, management, is largely driven by positional authority within an organisation. An example of this would be that as your manager, I am granted the authority to approve or deny your leave applications. It is usually assumed this positional authority is the result of me having some special knowledge about organisational behaviour, HR practices, and team planning, which equips me with the skills necessary to effectively manage your leave. The reality is usually lightyears from the ideal.

Leadership, by contrast, requires no positional authority whatsoever. It manifests when someone has expertise, a capacity for argumentation, charisma, etc., and people listen to that individual not because they must, but because it makes sense to do so.

This difference means that a leader can take followers on a journey because there is an established trust relationship, which engenders respect, and ends in a commitment to shared goals. A manager, by contrast, can only tell employees to do something because they have positional authority over the individuals — which will be carried out to varying levels of quality depending on whether trust, respect, and buy in have been established.

This nuance is important because Amy Edmondson had it right when she observed that team psychological safety is a group level phenomenon. In other words, individuals may speak up despite their fear of retribution, but for an environment to be psychological safe, there must be an absence of fear and with sufficient protections so that individuals (plural) feel that the environment is absent of retaliation, renunciation, or guilt. In this group context, each member of the team has a responsibility for leading psychologically safe environments. Yet for all the group dynamics, the success of efforts by groups are, in an organisational context, are highly correlated with managerial competence.

Managers who have strong capabilities in the organisational behaviour space, and work in close combination with HR, are well positioned to foster enhanced psychological safety by developing and encouraging open dialogue skills. These skills revolve around how individuals within a team talk through the inevitable tensions that arise at work. This may take the shape of dispute resolution, but also covers the ways in which concerns about management decisions, existing organisational process, or the roll out of new programs, are debated and discussed.

True, there can eventually come a time where some employees will simply never be aligned with the change or new process — at which point a little authoritarian management is needed. But so long as an individual or group can use reasoned deliberation to argue the benefits and can construct a rationale which stands up to scrutiny, they are well placed to create environments which are psychologically safe. It also means that when all avenues of consensus building have been exhausted, it is reasonable rather than authoritarian to pull on the leaver of “because I’m your manager and you just need to do this”.

Capabilities other than open dialogue which are less frequently used, yet are also predictive of psychologically safe environments, are situational humility and sponsoring success. Situational humility is when an individual does not dominate an interaction or situation so as to crowd out other voices. Sponsoring success involves thinking about others’ success ahead of our own. An example of this is scheduling meetings with care of other peoples’ commitments, or scaffolding their day for success, even if it creates a little more work for us.

Though I have sought to underscore the importance of team leaders, junior and middle managers, and employees without formal position authority as key drivers to leading psychological safety in an organisation, the hard truth is that culture begins at the top. This is particularly the case when Leading At Scale. While the capabilities needed at the organisation level are largely the same as at the team level — open dialogue, situational humility, and sponsoring success — there are some additional capabilities which become increasingly important when one climbs to the rarified air at the top of an organisation.

The first is cultural awareness and involves perceiving the norms that are present in the different cultures among an organisation’s stakeholders. These can be ethnic cultures, but also encompass generational cultures which can be an even greater driver of difference than ethnicity. The second is situational awareness and involves understanding the way in which stakeholder thinking is shaped and beliefs entrenched by selective observations. Without a deep and nuanced understanding of the cultural and situational challenges, Executives are unlikely to be able to plan for the paradigm shifts necessary for strategic success.

Ending Where We Start

If I have done my work well, the benefits, by products, and symptoms involved in managing for psychological safety should be increasingly clear — if not, please reach out. But where to begin with a manager or management team in the process of leading psychological safety and what practical steps can be taken?

The first element is to hire the right people. Of the Big Five personality traits, two are positively correlated to psychological safety. These are low neuroticism and high openness to experience. Hiring managers and talent teams may benefit from designing recruitment processes that include measures for these traits and in asking behavioural questions aimed at eliciting how candidates have managed for psychological safety in the past.

Second, organisations need to go beyond ad hoc or isolated training programs for managers. Our psychological state seldom changes easily, yet training to help us shift our paradigms is often relegated to occasional sessions. Instead, the Executive Leadership Team would do better to define clear strategies which are aligned to the organisation’s aspirations in the psychological safety space. This is done by baking in capabilities — such as open dialogue, situational humility, or sponsoring success — to establish an organisation wide taxonomy of skills that are part of a manager’s OKRs.

Third, ensure that learning experiences go beyond the technical. By this I mean management development experiences that are sensory, emotional, and designed to create ‘aha!’ moments. Heightening emotion during learning can create stronger connections which are better remembered over time. For this, learning programs need to challenge paradigms, innate emotional reactions, and assumptions to engender enduring psychological change. The challenge is that for such programs to be successful, a degree of psychological safety is necessary as a first step. Without this, managers are unlikely to be open to real change, instead preferring to show change in the moment but returning to their pre-existing paradigms once the training is over.

Finally, continuous learning needs to be part of a manager’s daily work. Some organisations, such as WooliesX, formally set one day a week as time for personal development. Other organisations leave it to the manager to make the time for personal development. For those applying the principles from Running Effective Meetings, and who have successfully engaged with Dov Frohman’s injunction that half of a leader’s time should be unscheduled, there will be the space in the working week to bounce forward from formal training and apply the lessons learned in the context of active projects and initiatives. This is an essential element in moving learning from retention to application.

The challenges in creating psychological safety are in some ways more complex for managers because they not only need to lead the process, but also lead themselves in the initiation of the process. Without the self-awareness necessary for this, the attempts to achieve psychological safety will stall and be little more than “safety washing”. But when managers are present who can publicly role model their own process of learning and development, they become true leaders who will be able to foster an operating environment in which it is safe to attempt, fail, change, develop, and ultimately succeed.

Good night, and good luck.

Photo by Paolo Candelo on Unsplash.

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