Calling yourself a leader is easy. It’s leading in ways that others feel included, are able to take risks, and provide critical feedback without fear that it is hard. A recent McKinsey global survey makes this truth glaringly obvious. Researchers found that most leaders believe their workplace is psychologically safe. However, only 43% of employees indicate a positive team climate at work, only 30% see a reason to say something when they see something is wrong, and only 30% believe their opinion counts. Some leaders are more prepared to accept this reality than others. In a fast-paced digital workplace leaders accept silence and high employee turnover as variables outside their influence. And, of course, the workplace is volatile and complex. Leaders must focus on delivering results and being responsive, or fall behind. But a daily focus on urgent and important tasks traps leaders in bad habits that rarely pay off. Here are five actions to battle the myth of a psychologically safe workplace.
The benefits of psychological safety
We all share a need to belong. Psychological safety is a condition when you feel included, able to learn, contribute, and provide critical feedback without fear of being embarrassed, excluded, or penalized. There are four levels of psychological safety:
Inclusion safety – We are constantly dividing the world between them and us. Inclusion safety is creating a shared identity so others are viewed as being in the same group.
Learner safety – This is feeling safe enough to experiment, ask questions, and fail as a part of the learning process.
Contributor safety – Is participating as an active full-fledged member of the team supported by autonomy and encouragement.
Challenger safety – This is the last stage when others are able to provide constructive criticism and engage in productive conflict without fear of exclusion or retaliation. This is the stage where individuals can innovate.
Evidence suggests that psychological safety leads to reduced costs and increased profitability from:
Increased innovation and quicker time-to-market
Ability to learn from mistakes and increased efficiency
Increased health and safety reporting and decreased risk
Higher employee engagement and lower employee turnover and absenteeism
Improved company brand reputation and ability to recruit
The urge to change and feeling stuck
I don’t believe the biggest barrier to leading in ways that others feel included, are able to take risks, and provide critical feedback is creating a greater desire for better habits. But, the answer can be found in greater awareness of proven principles and practical tools that busy leaders can successfully apply.
The truth is that anything worth doing isn’t always fun and it certainly isn’t easy. As you work on building new leadership habits, it is not uncommon to feel stuck. I’ve got many personal examples, and I am sure you do as well.
Whether you are just starting or have been working on making changes for months, it doesn’t matter. Anyone that has tried to build better habits has encountered the feeling of being stuck.
Occasionally, it’s not that you are really stuck but that the changes are not noticeable or happening at the pace you desire. Small changes can be difficult to notice when comparing changes day-to-day. Also, improvement doesn’t always happen in a linear or exponential way, as we would like.
Psychological Safety Myth Buster #1: Get Perspective
If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there. While the most important action you take is the first step toward improving, creating a burning platform for change provides the motivation to take the first step.
A great way to gain perspective into psychological safety is by getting curious. You can use the following questions in a one-to-one meeting or as an anonymous pulse survey with a team. I would suggest asking for responses in the form of a rating scale versus simply yes or no.
Q1. I feel a sense of belonging within my team.
Q2. I am myself at work.
Q3. I am comfortable asking my leader about my work.
Q4. I am comfortable asking my peers for help when needed.
Q5. I offer advice to my peers.
Q6. I go above and beyond my job expectations.
Q7. I am comfortable suggesting ways of getting work done better.
Q8. I speak up without fear of retaliation.
Psychological Safety Myth Buster #2: Create Accountability
Talking with a trusted advisor that can listen, provide perspective, and partner with you for accountability to take action is a high ROI activity. An executive coach can be an excellent, trusted advisor, providing a goal-oriented, solution-focused process in which you collaboratively build action plans and take steps to achieve your goal.
Psychological Safety Myth Buster #3: Build Capacity
Like physical endurance and strength can be enhanced with training, your capacity for changing your leadership habits can improve with development. Practicing small acts of self-control, like exercise followed by periods of rest, builds self-control capacity. What activity is practiced is not essential, but the amount of self-control exerted is critical. In other words, it is not what type of weight lifting you do but how much weight you lift. Increasing your self-control capacity helps you persevere when you experience challenges.
Psychological Safety Myth Buster Activity #4: Change Your World
This one is super practical. Change is rarely as easy as we imagine. And your world is perfectly designed for the leadership habits you have right now. You are getting some physical, social, or emotional benefits from your current habits. It is important to be deliberate about creating space for reflection and adding some positive reinforcement for your new habits.
Psychological Safety Myth Buster Activity #5: One Step at a Time
In my new book Life-Changing Leadership Habits, I provide 10 proven principles to help leaders get more out of life and work. When changing habits, it's critical to pick a replacement habit to start and not only focus on what you will stop doing. Even if you identify several habits you want to change, you will see the most growth by taking it one step at a time rather than attempting to change multiple habits all at once.
Getting to where you are going
I learned an important life lesson on a business trip to Puerto Rico, traveling with a good friend. I could count on him for directions. And after picking up our rental car at the airport, we realized we didn’t have the address to our hotel. The GPS could tell us where we were in the world. However, without knowing where we were going, it was useless information.
This experience taught me that what matters most in life is knowing where you are going. The secret to creating psychological safety is found in defining better or redefining effective leadership habits. You will not achieve your best without a clear picture.
In Life-Changing Leadership Habits, I discuss the influence of our inner game and outer game on our leadership habits. I explore the vices, virtues, and complications associated with breaking ten of the worst leadership habits. And discuss practical transformational ideas grounded in the latest research that busy leaders can successfully apply.
Striving for life-changing habits is a competitive advantage available to any leader looking for a powerful point of differentiation. Breaking bad habits is possible but not easy. Like hiking, the first step begins with being entirely willing to take a step and make a change.
What challenges are you facing leading in ways that create psychological safety? What is the cost to you and your business if you throw in the towel on psychological safety?
Clark. (2020). The 4 stages of psychological safety : defining the path to inclusion and innovation (First edition.). Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Incorporated.
Doolittle, J. (2023). Life-changing leadership habits: 10 Proven principles that will elevate people, profit, and purpose. Organizational Talent Consulting.
Edmondson, A. & Hugander, P. (2021). 4 Steps to boost psychological safety at your workplace. Harvard Business Review.
Wood, W., Tam, L., & Witt, M. G. (2005). Changing circumstances, disrupting habits. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88(6), 918-933. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.528