The COVID-19 pandemic has added to the mounting challenges facing learning and development (L&D) professionals. People and culture leaders must work in new, adaptive ways to improve and innovate performance or risk harming employee and organizational well-being. As organizational leaders, L&D professionals want their business and leaders to recognize and realize results quickly. One of the main obstacles preventing this goal is the sense that leaders and employees aren’t safe to voice their concerns. 

Today, effective L&D leaders are introducing the concept of psychological safety to reenergize and reinvent their workplace. As you consider your organization and its challenges, how is your team encouraging authentic leader and employee interactions?  

Defining Psychological Safety 

Amy C. Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School and a pioneer in the field of psychological safety, defines it as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.” When people feel unsafe at work, they withhold their voice and fail to bring their best to every situation. 

Current research makes it clear: Managers who create psychological safety are less likely to experience unwanted turnover. Leaders will recognize many benefits from their investments in helping managers create psychologically safe teams, including the following: 

    • Because the leaders value and leverage diverse talent, psychologically safe environments improve organization-wide collaboration. 
    • Employee well-being increases, because employees experience better mental and physical health than they would in a work environment that is not psychologically safe. 
    • Organizations also benefit from the innovation that results from high-performing team cultures of psychologically safe groups and teams. 

5 Leadership Actions to Create Psychological Safety  

Are your leaders and executives disciplined in their approaches to building a better, more psychologically safe organization? Here are five actions that leaders can take in their organization today to build psychological safety. 

1. Increase Self-awareness

Managers who create psychological safety are self-aware; they are comfortable being themselves and recognize their agency, power and strengths. Self-aware leaders develop their capacity to choose behaviors that create workplaces where employees are valued. They are aware of what they are doing –– and not doing –– to encourage well-being and prosperity through accountability, and they pay attention to internal sources of feedback to improve their relationships and advance personal growth. With focus and discipline, self-aware leaders help their colleagues achieve and exceed personal, team and organizational goals. They help others move forward with outstanding clarity and passion. 

2. Lead With Integrity

According to an Inc. article, Warren Buffet, the billionaire businessperson and founder of investment house Berkshire Hathaway, said, “Somebody once said that in looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.” How well do Buffet’s words resonate with your experience in your organization? 

Employees want honest leaders. We live up to our promise when we know that what we say and think matters to our manager and colleagues. Employees also need to experience consistency between the words and actions of their manager. Psychological safety doesn’t stop with being friendly and caring about others in the workplace. It extends to knowing that team members can raise different ideas and opinions without fear in meetings and one-on-one discussions with managers and co-workers. A manager’s capacity to be open and honest is a measure of his or her leadership — and honesty is guided by a moral compass and a strong ethical foundation. 

Values guide managerial and employee decision-making and organizational outcomes, and performance improves when employees connect to the organization’s values. Integrity is a common organizational value, reflecting a natural desire to operate both honestly and transparently. 

3. Build Connections 

Relationships matter to leaders who create psychological safety. They establish connections with colleagues through a combination of trust, open communication and transparency. The best way to build a connection is to practice saying,  “Hello.” It’s an easy way to invite others into a discussion and build an inclusive environment. 

When leaders value relationships, they recognize the individual’s inherent worth, acknowledging the person as someone with unique hopes, wants and concerns. They value the individual as a person who makes a cherished contribution. With informal recognition, employees bring more of their best to every situation. 

Sharing connects team members to each other and the organization’s broader pursuits, and effective leaders build connections by sharing their struggles and speaking openly in meetings. In turn, they promote disclosure and transparency from their colleagues. With strong connections, the value of productive output increases, because employees know that their work matters to their co-workers and manager. 

4. Foster Involvement

In psychologically safe teams, managers have created an environment where co-workers can express ideas and opinions that differ from their boss’ and colleagues’ perspectives. When employees feel safe to speak up, they know that their ideas matter, and they feel included in achieving the purpose of the team and organization. 

Managers foster involvement by connecting regularly and routinely with their team members. Managers of remote or dispersed teams, who are connected only via technology, make a point of increasing the frequency and quality of their communications. They involve people in important topics and matters, and if they cannot include employees in decision-making, they foster their involvement in implementation plans. 

When people feel included and valued, they bring their best and don’t let “dis-satisfiers” add up to challenging and significant employment de-motivators. There’s sage advice in the expression, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” Inclusive leaders involve others and invite their ideas and opinions to create a better workplace. 

5. Use Network Thinking

Successful managers consider the interactions between their department and other organizational units and teams in a practice known as systems or network thinking. They appreciate that modest actions can have far-reaching and consequential effects on others in an organization. 

Managers who create psychologically safe environments take a 360-degree view. Not only do they consider the unique individuals with whom they interact, but they also think about people in adjacent teams and units. Managers who use network thinking and action engage talent, helping them be more aware of departmental boundaries and their permeability and increasing collaboration and teamwork. 

Managers who succeed at network thinking create psychologically safe environments and make sure that team members are connected by sharing information and regular progress updates. Network thinking connects employees and their work to a unifying mission and purpose. 

Too many people are afraid to speak up and out at work because they are afraid of their manager’s and co-workers’ reactions. No one wants to feel the discomfort of being judged as incompetent, “less than” or difficult. It’s up to managers to embrace the principles of psychological safety if they want to build, maintain and sustain organizations that produce achievement, progress and success. 

The steps in shifting from other managerial practices to psychological safety practices require the support of L&D leaders, who are equipped to deal with change and uncertainty. They can help set the stage for new ways of working during our challenging times. Will you join this mission? 

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