Leadership & Psychological Safety
The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted almost all aspects of people’s lives. What was believed to be generally predictable has suddenly become extremely uncertain, and severely disrupted, including:
- physical safety
- financial safety
- career safety
- family & domestic safety & relative calmness
- social relations & support
- our work identity and all that brings.
All of these factors can severely drain employees’ psychological resources, and increase stress, anxiety, and depression, resulting in significantly reduced wellbeing. Richard Boyatzis, a US psychologist, goes so far as to state that the disruption to our lives and threats to our livelihood, concerns for our family have become a bigger source of threat than the virus itself.
As the boundaries between home and work life become blurred and confusing, leaders in organisations must accept the fact that this combination of factors has the potential to considerably damage employees’ confidence, mental health, and productivity. There is also the added pressure of being susceptible themselves to the same forces.
Whilst the success of the vaccination programme and the anticipated freedoms from lockdown bring hope for the semblance of a return to a ‘new normal’, leaders must also prepare their teams to be adaptable and resilient to meet the inevitable, unforeseen disruption in the weeks, months, and possibly years to come.
The case for needing to make the working environment – whether physical, virtual or hybrid – ‘psychologically safe’ has never been stronger.
The Case for Psychological Safety
The enormous challenges facing organisations in this Covid-world make it essential that they not only protect employees’ wellbeing, but also encourage and support teams in being able to work collaboratively, realise the benefits of diversity, adapt rapidly, solve complex problems, and innovate.
A critical factor emerging from research into high-performing teams is the concept of ‘psychological safety’, which has been described by a leading academic in the field, Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson, as: “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.” Basically, it is a belief shared within a team, that you can be yourself, and are respected and accepted as such.
In a formative research study that she and colleagues conducted to identify what distinguished high- from low-performing teams, it was found that high-performing teams initially seemed to make more mistakes. However, on deeper investigation it was realised that high-performing teams didn’t actually make more mistakes than low-performing teams, they just admitted to making more mistakes. The explanation for the difference was that the culture of their team was a safe environment in which to do so. In other words, the teams that regarded failure as an acceptable outcome were able to exploit mistakes as learning opportunities, work collaboratively to improve their results, and innovate.
Psychological safety is “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”
Professor Amy Edmonson
Edmondson’s research was conducted in US healthcare organisations, where mistakes can cost lives. Here, previous research has shown that 70 to 80% of medical errors are related to interactions within the health care team. It is worth noting that the teams in her research comprised a range of professionals with particular specialisms, and of different hierarchical status, which could, in principle, create potential tensions, distrust, and reluctance to share information or knowledge, and undervalue contributions of those from other specialities.
The key determinant of the exceptional success of the high-performing teams was that they created a culture in which each member was respected and valued for their particular knowledge, expertise and opinion, regardless of status or speciality. This makes the finding highly relevant for organisations in Covid-times as they face extraordinarily demands that require bringing together teams of individuals with a range of perspectives, expertise and experience to work on complex and novel problems.
In another study conducted in a very different business, entitled Project Aristotle, Google spent two years trying to discover what was it about their most effective teams that enabled them to deliver exceptional results. Prior to this project, Google had already spent millions of dollars over decades trying to understand team effectiveness, and create ‘the perfect team’, but when those initiatives did not deliver the expected results, Project Aristotle was born.
Google’s initial assumption was that outstanding teams succeed because they are equipped with a collection of the right blend of people and competencies. This was not, however, the case. Rather, it was found that:
- Teams which included individuals with a range of similar competencies, skills or experience, even with some of the same members, produced varying results.
- Variables such as strong management, team structure, seniority of members, length of experience, size of team, gender mix, provided no significant correlations with success.
- The key factor to emerge was the norms by which the team worked together.
The secret of the success of outstanding teams was that the way in which they worked together emphasised the importance of a balance of ‘human-centred’ characteristics, of which psychological safety was always at the top of the list.
Project Aristotle’s Key Characteristics of High-Performing Teams:
- Psychological safety: individuals within the team felt safe and supported in taking risks without the anxiety of feeling insecure or embarrassed
- Dependability: each member was trusted to do their best for the team and to complete high-quality work, on time
- Structure and clarity: there were clear roles, goals, and plans as to how the results would be achieved
- Meaning of work: the work was purposeful and satisfying to every member of the team
- Impact of work: everybody on the team believed that their efforts were directly contributing to the achievement of the goals of the organisation.
Subsequent research by psychologists has gathered evidence that a climate of psychological safety plays a crucial role in organisational success by strengthening:
- Learning: by sharing information or ideas; asking for help; discussing concerns, problems, mistakes
- Adaptative behaviour: flexibility and agility in responding to a rapidly changing environment
- Risk Management: by questioning and challenging existing organisational practices; identifying risks
- Innovation: by facilitating and encouraging brainstorming, thinking out-of-the-box; testing new ideas
- Proactivity: by actively encouraging individuals to use their initiative to improve the current situation by challenging the status quo and making suggestions
- Job Satisfaction & Meaning: because people feel heard, valued and respected by colleagues/boss; can express doubts and anxieties, have a clearer idea of purpose
- Wellbeing: by encouraging individuals to express their fears and anxieties, express their concerns, and seek help and support from others
- Engagement: by enabling all of the above, and be accepted for who they are, have a clear sense of purpose, which enables individuals to express themselves in the work they do, and feel appreciated, and become more committed to the job.
The pressing question is how is a culture or climate of psychological safety created?
The role of Leadership in creating Psychological Safety
It has long been known that organisational culture and climate are strongly influenced by leadership behaviours and role-modelling, and vice versa. Many studies have confirmed this association, including our own research at Real World Group.
Following this pattern, it can be seen that behaviours and role-modelling by leaders are crucial to the creation and maintenance of a climate of psychological safety. A US research study, conducted pre-Covid, found that leadership behaviours described as ‘leader inclusiveness’, significantly predicted psychological safety in teams.
The researchers define leader inclusiveness as: “words and deeds by a leader or leaders that indicate an invitation and appreciation for others’ contributions. Leader inclusiveness captures attempts by leaders to include others in discussions and decisions in which their voices and perspectives might otherwise be absent.”
Analysis of recent findings from a global survey by McKinsey, conducted during the current crisis, identified two aspects of leadership behaviour and role modelling that have an indirect effect on psychological safety. They label them:
- Supportive leadership: demonstrating concern and support for team members; understanding their individual needs
- Consultative leadership: consult team members, solicit input, and consider the team’s views on issues that affect them.
Each was found to directly and significantly influence ‘a positive team climate’, which then predicted psychological safety. Unsurprisingly, the survey found that a command-and-control style of leadership was detrimental to psychological safety.
All the studies cited in this paper have emphasised the critical importance of the most senior managers role-modelling these behaviours, as well as team leads throughout the organisation, in order to ensure that psychological safety is found throughout the culture.
Enabling high performance requires more than creating an environment of psychological safety
The demands of leadership required in this time of extraordinary and unpredictable challenges, requires a more complex model than being supportive, consultative, and inclusive, although they are indisputably essential for creating a climate of psychological safety.
Other demands include:
- How to unite employees behind a shared vision?
- How to encourage continuous improvement & innovation?
- How to empower people effectively?
- How to encourage readiness for change/change readiness?
- How to strengthen team adaptability to change?
- How to strengthen team potency (confidence to cope with pressure and achieve goals)
- How to increase collaboration between teams or other groups of stakeholders inside or external to the organisation?
The leadership behaviours that are described in Engaging Transformational Leadership  have never been more needed by organisations worldwide. Those familiar with the model will appreciate the range of behaviours included that overlap with the positive leadership attributes described throughout this article as ensuring psychological safety. In addition are a wide range of behaviours that both our research and that of others around the world have shown are the key to the leadership demands described above.
The model shows the various scales in each cluster, which include behaviours of support and consultation, and inclusiveness – namely those emphasised in the studies cited above.
The emphasis is on serving, supporting, and empowering others to display leadership themselves. It is about being respectful, approachable, accessible and transparent, and encouraging and welcoming the ideas of others, irrespective of level or status. It reflects the desire to see the world through the eyes of others, and to take on board their concerns, aspirations, needs, and perspectives on issues, and to work with their ideas.
Another theme is to encourage questioning and challenging of the status quo and to ensure this happens by creating an environment in which these ideas are encouraged, listened to and truly valued; and in which innovation and entrepreneurialism is encouraged. A culture that supports development is created, in which the leader is a role model for learning, and in which the inevitable mistakes are exploited for their learning opportunities. Leadership acts as a ‘cognitive catalyst’.
It contains a persistent theme of ‘connectedness’ and bringing people together, emphasising collaboration, teamworking, and of removing barriers to communication and ideas, whether between individuals at different levels, or in different teams and departments, or with clients, outside ‘stakeholders’ and partners.
The model forms the basis of various diagnostic developmental instruments, including the TLQ 360. This assessment includes a range of ‘impact measures’, which explore the effect the leader being assessed is having on their employees’ motivation, job satisfaction, self-confidence and work-related stress, and wellbeing. This has enabled us to test its validity, and that of related team, and organisational tools.
Among the research we have undertaken that explore what kind of leadership culture high performing, innovative teams have are two 3-year longitudinal investigations. To summarise the findings, the data provided evidence that, embedding Engaging Transformational Leadership significantly predicted:
- Team engagement
- Team wellbeing
Similarly, and particularly important given the increasing number of employees experiencing high levels of stress, burnout and poor mental health arising from the pandemic, findings obtained in a recent study conducted by researchers at Ohio State University, are noteworthy. They concluded that:
“Business leaders who are attentive to employees’ emotional needs and unite them behind a common purpose made a positive difference and helped workers stay engaged at work and contribute to their communities…”
Despite this unsurprising fact, it is disappointing to note that there is evidence from a McKinsey global survey which found that very few business leaders were rated as often demonstrating the positive behaviours that can instil this climate.
Some final thoughts
As organisations experience unprecedented challenges in manoeuvring through the disruptions and uncertainties of the effects of the pandemic, they must place the morale and wellbeing of all their employees centre stage, not simply on moral grounds, but because they are the very means of achieving success.
The evidence is clear that a culture of psychological safety provides a rich environment for generating ideas, innovation, learning, sharing information and expertise, flexibility and agility in response to change. As discussed, these are all invaluable resources, particularly during a time of disruption.
Since leaders, particularly those in the most senior positions, either create or inhibit such a culture, this approach is central to how they must lead. What is needed are simple and, to a large extent, common-sense behaviours, but at the same time they are the enactment of essential values, beliefs and attitudes of managers.
Sadly, these behaviours are far too often missing in the culture of organisations. Our evidence suggests that they can, however, be learned. Going forward, organisations should both ensure that they are embedded in the DNA of what is expected of leaders, and provide leaders with the opportunity to reflect on and develop the extent to which they enact these behaviours. Through this, a true culture of psychological safety can be created so that individuals, organisations, and the customers or communities they serve can thrive.
 Schaefer, Helmreich, & Scheideggar, 1994 cited in Nembhard & Edmondson, 2006, p. 942
 Duhigg, C. ‘What Google learnt from its quest to build the perfect team’, New York Times Magazine, Feb 25th 2016
McKinsey ‘Psychological safety & the critical role of Leadership Development’, Feb 2021
 Alimo, B.M. & Alban-Metcalfe, J. (2012) The Need to Get More for Less. In Management Articles of the Year, Chartered Management Institute, London. https://realworld-group.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/award-winning-cmi-management-article-of-the-year-570f8269a01a9.pdf