Leaders, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is the responsibility to create and maintain a psychologically safe environment for the colleagues who are in your care. This mission is an imperative for anyone in a leadership role right now. In fact, many organizations mandate this. The problem is that we are not equipping leaders with the psychologically safe space and/or time to learn how to effectively create this environment. Instead, we focus on the word safe without giving it a context, explaining the impact or holding leaders accountable for behaviors that drive success. Organizations want people to feel safe and they want people to feel safe right now in today’s VUCA business world.
What is the VUCA world? This overused acronym stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. All things leaders must navigate in today’s social context and work environment. The problem is, telling leaders to do this does not erase the fear of the unknown. What tools exist for them to navigate the VUCA environment and create safe spaces? Where can they find and access the tools? Chances are, the tools are already in their toolkit, they just need activation and direction. Let’s open the toolkit and take a look at the tools and how to activate them.
Somewhere on the leadership journey, courageousness is gained. It usually starts when a new leader must give meaningful feedback for the first time, make a decision in ambiguity or face up to their first mistake. Challenges like this require overcoming a fear of the unknown, deciding to act and realizing afterwards, that the process was better than expected. Being courageous is about making up your mind, taking risks and understanding the long-term impacts will enhance success. Being courageous is a choice and creating psychological safety may be something new for you. Pull the courageousness out of your toolkit and take the first step.
Leaders take risks every day. Sometimes things go well and sometimes they don’t. The best leaders take the risk and outcomes and turn them into learning experiences. Leaders who do not attempt to create psychologically safe environments choose inaction that will have a long-term impact and cost to their organizations. Turnover is only the beginning of what could go wrong. Choosing inaction is an issue, not a risk.
Delivering Actions and Outcomes
Leaders are responsible for actionable results on a daily basis. Creating psychological safety on a team is an actionable result, meaning leaders have the power to make it happen. They do this by taking responsibility and being intentional about it. This means that it is not a mandated action, it is a growth action and leaders are responsible for their own growth and development as well as developing the people in their care. Leaders have a responsibility to learn about how to create inclusion and belonging on their teams as well as to model the inclusive behavior themselves. Ultimately, people need to feel safe to be heard, to speak up and to ask questions without fear of repercussions. The actions leaders take in modeling the behavior, the more likely the team will follow the same action.
Modeling Consistency in Communication and Feedback Loops
In a recent study, McKinsey looked at differences in leadership styles to determine whether style promoted or detracted from the psychological safety on a team. They found authoritative style to be the least effective style for making colleagues feel safe and consultative and supportive styles the most effective. Leaders who are consultative and supportive are great at asking questions and giving feedback. They do it by ensuring they meet with team members at a regular cadence, even if it is just to check in. They often ask how things are going and check in on work life balance and promote use of paid time off (PTO) and lunch breaks because they know that these breaks enhance a colleague’s ability to do their best work. In addition, they allow people to set their own boundaries, understanding that if they send an email in off hours, that the colleagues in their care are not obligated to respond outside of normal work hours. In addition, they may even schedule after hours emails so they are not delivered until the following work day. Lastly, they invest in and create opportunities to sponsor, support and grow their team members and give them opportunities to speak up about things that matter to them.
In psychologically safe environments, team members feel safe to express innovative ideas and solutions that can improve team and organizational effectiveness. Instead of shooting down ideas, even if the leader thinks they will not be successful, they take an approach of curiosity and create opportunities to provide pathways to support, pressure testing for potential successes or promoting constructive dialogues about different perspectives. While doing this, leaders often express gratitude for conversations and ideas, helping colleagues feel valued, regardless of the outcome.
Psychological safety on teams promotes trust and reduces drama. When leaders use their tools to enhance their team culture and promote safe environments, their direct reports will be more open and more invested in their work. When leaders listen to understand their team members’ needs and what matters most to them within the context of their work, they create a greater sense of belonging. When people feel like they belong, they are more likely to express ideas, try new strategies and work harder and more diligently for the betterment of the team and the organization … and what leader wouldn’t value that?