How Leaders Can Promote Psychological Safety in the Workplace

08/29/2017 08:46 am ET

This article was co-authored with Sara Davis.

“Psychological safety” has emerged as an essential concept and term in the contemporary business world. It refers to the notion that the work environment must foster people’s confidence in taking well-considered risks around innovation and growth. Workers think and function optimally when they can challenge existing paradigms and test new modes of action, without fear of negative consequences for their jobs and careers. Forward looking leaders promote the value of individuals and teams thinking “outside the box” without being shamed or judged negatively by others. A growing body of organizational behavior research is exploring the multiple dimensions of psychological safety as an interpersonal construct with important implications for business success.

Psychological safety tends to emanate from the top and propagate across organizations. All workplaces have an “emotional culture” that shapes how it functions internally and presents itself externally. But top-tier leadership carries the greatest responsibility for shaping this culture. “Emotional culture is shaped by how all employees—from the highest echelons to the front lines—comport themselves day in and day out,” write Sigal Barside and Olivia O’Neill in the Harvard Business Review. “But it’s up to senior leaders to establish which emotions will help the organization thrive, model those emotions, and reward others for doing the same.” The well-described phenomenon of emotional contagion is at play here -- the emotional states of one or a few people quickly spread to others with whom they interact, and so on across the entire social network.

Research suggests that inclusive leaders (who incorporate contributions from multiple stakeholders) and those who encourage others to learn from failures (rather than be punished for them) foster psychological safety in workplace units. Creative, strategic, and visionary leaders surround themselves with like-minded individuals who are also willing to think big, play with new ideas, and accept the reality that most of those ideas are likely to fail. As long as individuals are able and willing to accept the vulnerability that comes with sharing ideas that may not pan out, the company can position itself for future growth as a result of novel thinking and thoughtful experimentation. Google’s Project Aristotle study revealed that this kind of psychological safety is the most reliable predictor of a team’s capacity to thrive.

Leaders who regulate their emotions effectively and express emotions such as enthusiasm, openness, and joy can induce others around them to do the same. The most effective business leaders possess high degrees of self-awareness about the emotional states that they are experiencing, expressing, and thereby inducing in others around their companies. Leaders who are overly stressed, frustrated, or angry can create toxic work environments via a variety of nonverbal cues such as tense body language, scowling, and eye rolling. On the other hand, calm, steady, and focused leaders help others to experience similar mental states -- which in turn can empower them to think clearly, innovate, and perform at peak capacity. Mindfulness strategies like meditation, which enable people to attend to their present moment experiences (such as breathing patterns) in a relaxed and non-judgmental fashion, can enable leaders to attain the mental states that they should propagate across their companies as a positive “contagion.”

How can levels of psychological safety in modern day workplaces increase? One robust approach is to introduce training and coaching programs that explicitly develop the capacity of leaders and employees to co-create a safe workspace. The Human Quotient (HQ) is a model that can guide executive coaching and leadership training programs on psychological safety.. The “quotient” has a numerator and a denominator: “proactive” over “reactive.” Psychological safety grows by increasing the numerator and decreasing the denominator in 3 domains: cognitive, behavioral, and interpersonal. The cognitive element requires proactive self-reflection on core values (e.g., kindness and open-mindedness) and strategic goals. The behavioral aspect involves proactive enhancement of self-management skills (e.g., use of mindfulness) and elimination of reactive, toxic behaviors. The interpersonal aspect requires proactive fostering of open dialogue, empathy, and collaboration. As HQ grows by an increase in the “proactive” numerator and a decrease in the “reactive” denominator, so too does psychological safety take hold within the organization.

Training programs based on the HQ model can be introduced internally (e.g., by HR and talent development specialists) or with the assistance of external coaches and trainers. These programs can start with didactic material on the conceptual and research bases of psychological safety and cognitive, behavioral, and interpersonal elements of HQ which can promote psychological safety.

But the bulk of the training ought to be experiential. Mindfulness exercises are a good place to start, in order to help participants achieve a calm and focused mental state (and enhance their skills at later doing so on their own). Participants are asked to engage in self-reflection and writing exercises on their core values and how to develop a more proactive mindset around spreading psychological safety to their colleagues (the training group can then share some of these reflections with the wider group).

Another component of training is to have small groups or dyads engage in inquiry and dialogue sessions that help to develop the skill of asking each other open-ended questions about workplace stressors and potential solutions (and again sharing observations with the wider group). Other similar experiential learning in breakout groups and with the wider group round out the training, which can be delivered effectively over 1-2 days. In some cases, key leaders might want to reinforce this training by engaging in individual coaching programs tailored to their particular needs as individuals.

The bottom line is that the elements of HQ are highly learnable and, when implemented in a day-to-day fashion in workplaces, can increase the psychological safety on which complex 21st century business will continue to rely.

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