When individuals have psychological safety, they feel included, valued and respected. They believe they can speak up, ask questions or make mistakes without being embarrassed, marginalized or punished. Leaders can benefit from having a safe space to feel vulnerable about their shortcomings — real and perceived — as they maneuver the shifting ground beneath them. Consider the situation many leaders are now in with the pandemic and remote or hybrid work. Their trusted playbooks and many of the lessons they learned over the years are obsolete.
The “all-knowing” boss has been humbled and is now discovering the value of new ways of thinking and doing, such as: Learning to give up control, deal with continuous uncertainty and listen more than they talk. To guide actions, they are relying on company and personal values as a touchstone more than long-term strategic plans. These new ways of working also depend on shifting working relationships and the sharing of power — with team members, peers, more senior executives and external stakeholders — to collaborate more and adapt faster. When both leaders and their team members feel safe, they are able to explore more options and take more risks. Together they can perform at a higher level, be more productive and create a healthier culture. For example, when you’re more comfortable, you’re able to be more candid, creative and collaborative, which leads to more innovation, improved performance and greater resilience.
As more people become aware of psychological safety and its value in the workplace, it remains an intangible asset that requires continuous oversight with frequent care and feeding. Since it’s a personal feeling, it can be hard to build, measure and sustain. What feels safe for one person can be different for another. And one person’s perception of safety can drop to dangerously low levels in an instant if someone in a more powerful position or a colleague says something perceived as insensitive or critical and there’s no time or space for grace. For example, I still remember a leader standing next to me in the lunch buffet as I helped myself to a large cookie. He lowered his deep voice so only I could hear and said, “There goes the diet!” And some leaders wonder why remote working is so appealing to many of us.
Perceptive leaders work with psychological safety on two levels: taking responsibility for building safety for their team and managing their own vulnerability as they continue to learn and grow in their changing role.
On the team front, these leaders tend to create strong connections with their team members, getting to know them as individuals, especially their work styles, preferred work hours, strengths, developmental areas and their important commitments outside of work. Leaders also monitor team meetings and other interactions to ensure that everyone gets a chance to speak, be heard and feel connected. Besides stepping in when others talk over teammates, leaders will step back to share their opinions after everyone else has had a chance to voice their sentiments. Plus, leaders role model respect and other helpful behaviors to encourage team members to do their part to provide a safe environment.
On the personal front, leaders may not have anyone other than their manager to look out for them. As a result, leaders may turn to a mentor, an empathetic employee who’s willing to offer reverse mentoring or an executive coach. If you’re in this situation, you can help yourself and others. You can set up your own network of individuals to create a safe space to experiment and practice new ways of working. Consider it a type of working advisory board or a safety board.
Based on my personal experiences and from what I’ve heard from my coaching clients, the members can make or break the success of the board. At a minimum, members should be empathetic, curious and willing to be accountable to each other. Ideally, they are also self-aware, in touch with their emotions and comfortable giving feedback. Similar to the ideal members of other effective teams, right?