Leaders Create Safe Spaces

Psychological safety is nothing new. It is a concept that has been examined in organizational psychology for decades. More than 50 years ago, Edgar H. Schein and Warren G. Bennis examined group dynamics for organizational transformation, highlighting the importance of an individual’s sense of safety, in their book Personal and Organizational Change (1965)[1].

Today, the concept of psychological safety shows up in everything from pop psychology bestsellers to esteemed academic journals. The need for people to feel safe to be themselves and take risks in order to achieve success may seem an obvious requirement in today’s business landscape, but nurturing an individual’s sense of safety is tricky. A commitment to understanding this dynamic means a leader must do more than use the cyclically trendy phrase in a mission statement.

Fostering an environment of genuine psychological safety means taking the time to relate to followers on an individual level. But understanding the tricky dynamics of the individual’s capacity for transformation may not be inherent or even seem realistic to all leaders. The first step to creating a safe space for those who follow is stepping aside from productivity goals and connecting with the unique needs of individuals.

When leaders reach out to subordinates, they can better engage in mutual understanding and be more equipped to gain trust. The onus is on the leader to earn the confidence of those who follow, and this is nearly impossible if followers do not feel comfortable to be themselves in their respective positions.

Imagine that a new member of an executive sales team – let’s call her Fran – is facing her first major hurdle at work. Her Q2 sales are the lowest the company has seen in a year. She approaches her boss, Gargamel (Gen Xer reference – look it up), with her first quarterly update to get feedback, and when she reveals that she did not hit her sales goal, he says, “You have to step it up to keep your job around here.”

Is this motivation? No, it’s disparagement laced with the threat of unemployment, and though such responses sometimes lead to short-term results, they will dissuade Fran from sustainable success.

Imagine another scenario in which Fran is excelling and hitting all sales goals that the company can throw at her. When she turns in her quarterly update, Gargamel tells his team, “Well, folks, this is what I call a success story! Fran can do it, so why can’t the rest of you? Keep this up, Fran!” And the room offers weak applause.

Is this any better? Well, no. In this scenario, Gargamel is simply offering disparagement laced with a threat of unemployment to a team, rather than recognition of their individual contributions. In what is often regarded as transactional leadership, a follower is directly rewarded for task execution alone, which can be hollow praise.

Not only do such tactics keep everyone on edge, even those who are top performers feel less safe, meaning they are less likely to trust intuition and take risks in their roles. In this second scenario, even Fran may feel a point of contention with her team because she is being defined by her comparison to them. This lowers the stakes for her and everyone involved.

Leading through intimidation, using bullying tactics or holding others’ successes over the heads of a general following will only result in disloyal employees who do not feel comfortable enough around their leader to efficiently problem-solve. Not only that, it means that the person in the leadership role is passing up an opportunity for sustainable growth.

It is very possible that Fran’s first quarter would not be ideal, but she could learn from her challenges and end up being one of the most prolific sales people on the team. Mistakes, after all, are the building blocks to success. Likewise, when a team is asked to compete and compare, workers are often left feeling disenfranchised and lonely, and they may lose sight of common goals.

Psychological safety is about inclusivity and support. It does not mean forgiving poor performance or bad attitudes, but it does mean understanding that people are complex and psychologically nuanced. Each individual has something unique to bring to his or her role, but no one, especially not those entering the workforce, will excel without trust, support and confidence from those who lead.[2]

Trust and respect are gained from a sense of shared ownership of goals, along with a mutual accountability, which enables employees or other followers to feel as though they are a part of something – not merely an expendable resource. Accordingly, the ongoing challenge for leaders is finding the balance between recognizing individuals’ unique strengths and acknowledging successes in a healthy, team-focused manner.

[1] Harris, Justine. Schein, Edgar H. and Bennis, Warren G. (1965). Personal and Organizational Change Through Group Methods: The Laboratory Approach.Canadian Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy / Revue canadienne de counseling et de psychothérapie, [S.l.], v. 1, n. 1, apr. 2012. ISSN 1923-6182. Date accessed: 09 may 2018.

[2] Edmondson, AC. pp 23-43. "Psychological Safety: The History, Renaissance, and Future of an Interpersonal Construct. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior. Volume 1, 2014.



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