How can you, as a leader, build psychological safety?

I remember working with a senior leadership team a few years back where conversations were polite, benign and frustrating. Some individuals would hold back for fear of saying the wrong thing, and others would take inordinate lengths of time to get their point across in a way that wasn’t seen as critical of those around them. It was evident that there was little trust in the group to raise the difficult issues.

The main reason for this was a lack of psychological safety, and this was due to a leader who was deploying his authority in a way that stopped people from speaking up about the real issues. Without psychological safety, it is difficult to demonstrate leadership agility at either an individual or a team level. To lead successfully, we need to be able to debate the real issues, address any elephants in the room, and challenge the status quo without fear of being marginalised.

Whilst a lack of trust can prevent people from speaking up, other reasons include a fear of looking silly in front of colleagues or a fear of being seen as negative. Some people defer to authority as they don’t feel safe challenging the more senior people in a room. Whatever the reasons are for not speaking up, it can result in a detrimental impact on the team’s progress.

It is easy to stay in a comfort zone where we are safe. Why raise concerns if the group’s default is to either not deal with them or marginalise someone who does raise them? This can result in ‘groupthink’, where groups value harmony and conformity so much that it impacts negatively on their decision making.

So what are some things you can do as a leader to improve psychological safety?

1. Be accessible and approachable.

A leader’s ‘shadow’ casts long and an approachable and accessible ‘shadow’ will have a big impact on people speaking up. You might do this through asking questions, listening deeply or simply creating time for people to connect with you.

2. Engage the no.

Groups can have a tendency to marginalise people who have a different view or show negativity towards an idea. Engaging the no simply means that you create space and actively engage those who disagree or have a different opinion. Seek to understand their perspective and get others to do the same. This sends a message to the group that it’s ok to disagree and have a different viewpoint.

3. Set boundaries with the team and hold people to account.

I always encourage the team to set the boundaries together. What are the ground rules we want in place to build psychological safety? How do we encourage each other to speak up? How do we create space for each other? How can we engage with disagreement? How can we raise the elephant in the room? Once you have identified these ground rules then it’s important that both you and the team feel comfortable to hold each other to account. One of the things I get teams to do is review these ground rules each month to see how effectively they are adhering to them.

If you want help building team agility and psychological safety please do not hesitate to make contact.

Andrew Williams is a speaker, coach, facilitator and author of Survive and Thrive: 120 Ideas to Cultivate your Leadership Agility. Head to www.cultivateagility.com to learn more about Andrew and his services.

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