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What do 50 leaders make of psychological safety?

In her book, ‘The Fearless Organisation’, Amy Edmondson describes psychological safety as an ‘absence of interpersonal fear’. A team that can be vulnerable, embrace uncertainty, reposition failure as learning opportunities, and lean into its human failings is one that allows its members to propose ideas, ask for help, challenge and support more effectively. We’re drawn to the idea - it features in much of our work helping leaders and teams unlock growth.


We recently hosted a Thinking Breakfast with nearly 50 leaders to explore the subject of psychological safety and think together about what it really means. We invited a panel of experts working with the Mars Group, KPMG and M&G Prudential to stimulate thought and facilitated an exploration of how leaders can create organisations that are more psychologically safe.

One leadership development expert who joined us commented on the felt sense of psychological safety in the room - vulnerability, openness, humility, care and a spirit of mutual discovery. Our participants were generous and thoughtful in what they shared - here are the highlights.


What does psychological safety mean to you?

  • Psychological safety has, at its heart, self-acceptance and an absence of the need to act defensively and ‘self-edit’. Leaders who can model that self-acceptance will encourage their teams to do the same.

  • Consistent words and behaviours from leaders show that they mean what they say and you can trust them.

  • It comes to life through the uncommon courtesies of giving others time and attention, really listening with curiosity, and genuinely valuing people’s perspectives and contributions.

  • It is characterised by high honesty and challenge, together with high care and support - so dovetails with Kim Scott’s model of Radical Candour - honest, challenging conversations delivered with personal care.

  • We suspect there is a strong link between psychological safety and mental health - in that unsafe teams likely exacerbate and inflame mental health issues, and vice versa.

  • When psychological safety is present, individuals feel able to challenge irrespective of hierarchy, and become a more valuable part of a leader’s sensing and learning system. This is vital for identifying and managing risks, experimenting and evolving.

  • Psychological safety helps people to transcend the limits of their own capabilities.


Why is psychological safety an idea whose time has come?

Our work takes place in increasingly complex systems, where outcomes are less predictable, timelines are shorter, and experimentation, creativity and rapid change are more important than ever.


We are becoming less psychologically safe - the socioeconomic context, the demands of social media to present a ‘perfect self’, declining job security and greater pressure may all be eroding safety - so we have a duty to build it back in, consciously.


What can we do as leaders to create more psychologically safe teams and organisations?

Psychological safety exists at a team level, and each leader has a role in influencing the safety of their teams. Context is also key, with organisation culture, structures and processes setting the scene, and sector and societal forces coming into play.

Amy Edmondson’s tripartite invitation to leaders resonated through our conversations – specifically, leaders that build psychological safety

1. frame the work and imbue it with meaning for their teams

2. invite and make space for contribution

3. respond humanly, consciously, clearly and consistently to contribution, whatever it is


Here are some of the themes and implications for leaders that emerged from the second part of our conversation:


Clear is kind

Leaders of psychological safe teams work with them to create clear agreements about what is acceptable or otherwise, and what work is expected and how it will be evaluated. Continuing to uphold and reinforce these agreements and expectations by raising up examples of what’s worth celebrating and reviewing what needs to change continues to develop psychological safety for their teams. Netflix’s culture statement says ‘no brilliant jerks’.


In times of peace, prepare for war

When we are under pressure, stressed or off-centre, embracing failure and showing vulnerability can be particularly difficult to do - right at the time when they are most needed. That means it’s particularly important to build a foundation of safety when we’re under less pressure and operating from “above the line” - at our most resourceful. If we can do that, then it will be there for us as a capacity when we really need it.


Find alternative power sources

Leadership confidence can be built on expertise - think lawyers for example, whose clients expect them to know the right answer. Psychological safety depends on us being able to relinquish part of our role as experts - to show chinks in our armour of knowledge and control. For some of us, that letting go may be painful, and even a partial loss of identity; and we will need to replace that somehow and find other sources of confidence and influence.

By showing vulnerability and saying, ‘I don’t know’, leaders invite their team members to share what they know, take ownership of situations, and deepen the shared capacity.


Make space for human conversations

We need to be accessible to people - to create and hold space for human conversations. Micro-skills like showing curiosity and deep listening are power tools in these interactions - they enable us to learn about what matters to our colleagues. When the pressure is on, this space often comes under threat from what’s urgent - it might be useful to think of this as an investment in efficiency and performance.

Even asking, ‘how are you?’ and listening differently to the answer may help build psychological safety.


Noticing and managing ourselves

As leaders, we clear a path for others to tread. People do as they see, not as they are told. Psychological safety stems from leadership behaviour - how we frame the work, invite participation, and respond to teammates’ contribution and failure. We might talk a good game, but if we are triggered into aggressive or unpredictable behaviour under pressure, this counts for worse than nothing.

This means that becoming more aware of our own responses and reactions, and the impact on relationships and the team is important. Developing the capacity to manage ourselves in relation to others is core work.


It’s our behaviour that creates safety, but processes play a part in reinforcing it

Processes play a part in reinforcing the impact of that behaviour. Performance processes, leadership communication, reward structures and so on all send out messages to the organisation about attitudes to failure, mistakes, vulnerability and ‘not knowing’. Leaders play a part in tending to the whole system and building congruence to reinforce their personal behaviours, and ensuring the right behaviours are rewarded and not inadvertently punished.

We’re deeply appreciative of all our friends and clients who joined us for a great, human conversation; to our three panelists who stimulated our thinking and shared their expertise, perspectives and knowledge; our scribe who captured the storyboard above; and Amy Edmondson for providing inspiring thought (and retweeting us!).


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