People seek to protect their self-image in any environment, and the workplace is no different. Power dynamics, hierarchy, expert status, “old boys’ clubs” … you name it. The playing field isn’t level, so the workplace is full of risks to our esteem, and the stakes — our job and financial security — are high.   

For this reason, the best leaders reduce risks by creating psychological safety for their team members. These leaders intentionally build an environment where it is safe to speak up, share ideas, disagree respectfully, ask for help and acknowledge weaknesses. Studies indicate that these environments support innovation, team member inclusion and successful teamwork, according to Amy Edmondson’s book “The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.”   

Wanting to drive creativity and teamwork, learning and development (L&D) organizations support leaders who develop the behaviors associated with psychological safety, such as avoiding blame and negativity and championing the team. But those behaviors only half of the equation. Leaders also need to set clear expectations and candidly communicate when employees don’t meet those expectations. Building high-performance teams requires a focus on weaknesses and how to overcome them, which may feel at odds with psychological safety. Yet employees cannot work to overcome gaps they don’t know they have. Without awareness, deliberate development is unlikely to occur.   

In the absence of specific leadership development, leaders may be tempted to build performance through positive reinforcement to maintain a “safe” environment. While praise and recognition make employees feel good, it is feedback on negative traits that is most effective, especially for sustained success. Approaching improvement with solely positive reinforcement can make team members resistant to developmental feedback in the long term. Over time, one-sided positive feedback results in a failure to address shortcomings and an inability to course-correct.  

Fortunately, learning and development organizations can teach leaders to recognize common responses to feedback, such as saving face, losing perspective and projecting motives, and to manage them in ways that support psychological safety.   

Saving Face  

Negative feedback impacts our ego and leaves us feeling vulnerable. Leaders can protect us from these natural responses by providing context for their feedback, communicating why the issue matters. This approach emphasizes the importance of the employee’s contribution, which supports self-esteem. 

Leaders can also learn the skills of helping team members reframe negative thoughts in ways that protect the ego. There is (psychological) safety in numbers, so confirming that “no one gets everything right” or that “many people share this challenge” reinforces that we all have more to learn. When leaders use face-saving language, they still deliver the feedback, but they make it a part of a natural learning journey rather than addressing it like a personal failure.   

Keeping Perspective  

Another natural response to feedback is to lose perspective. We have all experienced moments of catastrophizing, when we responded to advice by engaging in “all or nothing” thinking: “I will never be any good,” “I can’t get anything right” or “I’m a failure.” 

Instead of avoiding feedback, leaders can learn to coach in ways that emphasize adjusting one manageable thing at a time. By “right-sizing” the challenge, team members can keep their perspective and focus on achievable development. Helping team members identify manageable improvement opportunities supports high performance while building a positive, nurturing relationship and supporting psychological safety.  

Managing Projection 

Shooting the messenger is a natural defense mechanism designed to safeguard our feelings. To feel better about ourselves, we often rationalize negative feedback by creating variations of “He doesn’t like me” or “I threaten her.” As a result, team members faced with clear feedback on needed improvements can attribute feedback to the thoughts or motives of the person giving it. 

Leaders can help team members reframe “He doesn’t like me” by being explicit about their positive intent. When leaders signal that they care for team members’ growth, development, career, reputation, performance and prosperity, they make even the most challenging performance-enhancing feedback acceptable — even inspiring!   

Safety and Truth  

It is possible to have both psychological safety and a culture of constructive feedback, but it requires skilled leaders. Learning organizations teaching the behaviors associated with psychological safety must teach the companion skills of giving feedback if they are to contribute to a high-performance organization. 

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