Psychological safety and the critical role of leadership development

While the benefits of psychological safety are well established, a new survey suggests how leaders, by developing specific skills, can create a safer and higher-performance work environment.

When employees feel comfortable asking for help, sharing suggestions informally, or challenging the status quo without fear of negative social consequences, organizations are more likely to innovate quickly, unlock the benefits of diversity, and adapt well to change—all capabilities that have only grown in importance during the COVID-19 crisis. 1 Yet a McKinsey Global Survey conducted during the pandemic confirms that only a handful of business leaders often demonstrate the positive behaviors that can instill this climate, termed psychological safety, in their workforce. 2

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As considerable prior research shows, psychological safety is a precursor to adaptive, innovative performance—which is needed in today’s rapidly changing environment—at the individual, team, and organization levels. 3 For example, successfully creating a “network of teams”—an agile organizational structure that empowers teams to tackle problems quickly by operating outside of bureaucratic or siloed structures—requires a strong degree of psychological safety.

Fortunately, our newest research suggests how organizations can foster psychological safety. Doing so depends on leaders at all levels learning and demonstrating specific leadership behaviors that help their employees thrive. Investing in and scaling up leadership-development programs can equip leaders to embody these behaviors and consequently cultivate psychological safety across the organization.

A recipe for leadership that promotes psychological safety

Leaders can build psychological safety by creating the right climate, mindsets, and behaviors within their teams. In our experience, those who do this best act as catalysts, empowering and enabling other leaders on the team—even those with no formal authority—to help cultivate psychological safety by role modeling and reinforcing the behaviors they expect from the rest of the team.

Our research finds that a positive team climate—in which team members value one another’s contributions, care about one another’s well-being, and have input into how the team carries out its work—is the most important driver of a team’s psychological safety. 4 By setting the tone for the team climate through their own actions, team leaders have the strongest influence on a team’s psychological safety. Moreover, creating a positive team climate can pay additional dividends during a time of disruption. Our research finds that a positive team climate has a stronger effect on psychological safety in teams that experienced a greater degree of change in working remotely than in those that experienced less change during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet just 43 percent of all respondents report a positive climate within their team.

Positive team climate is the most important driver of psychological safety and most likely to occur when leaders demonstrate supportive, consultative behaviors, then begin to challenge their teams.

During the pandemic, we have seen an accelerated shift away from the traditional command-and-control leadership style known as authoritative leadership, one of the four well-established styles of leadership behavior we examined to understand which ones encourage a positive team climate and psychological safety. The survey finds that team leaders’ authoritative-leadership behaviors are detrimental to psychological safety, while consultative- and supportive-leadership behaviors promote psychological safety.

The results also suggest that leaders can further enhance psychological safety by ensuring a positive team climate (Exhibit 1). Both consultative and supportive leadership help create a positive team climate, though to varying degrees and through different types of behaviors.

Leaders can increase the likelihood of team members’ psychological safety by demonstrating specific behaviors.
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With consultative leadership, which has a direct and indirect effect on psychological safety, leaders consult their team members, solicit input, and consider the team’s views on issues that affect them. 5 Supportive leadership has an indirect but still significant effect on psychological safety by helping to create a positive team climate; it involves leaders demonstrating concern and support for team members not only as employees but also as individuals. 6 These behaviors also can encourage team members to support one another.

Another set of leadership behaviors can sometimes strengthen psychological safety—but only when a positive team climate is in place. This set of behaviors, known as challenging leadership, encourages employees to do more than they initially think they can. A challenging leader asks team members to reexamine assumptions about their work and how it can be performed in order to exceed expectations and fulfill their potential. Challenging leadership has previously been linked with employees expressing creativity, feeling empowered to make work-related changes, and seeking to learn and improve. 7 However, the survey findings show that the highest likelihood of psychological safety occurs when a team leader first creates a positive team climate, through frequent supportive and consultative actions, and then challenges their team; without a foundation of positive climate, challenging behaviors have no significant effect. And employees’ experiences look very different depending on how their leaders behave, according to Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School (interactive).

Interactive
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What’s more, the survey results show that a climate conducive to psychological safety starts at the very top of an organization. We sought to understand the effects of senior-leader behavior on employees’ sense of safety and found that senior leaders can help create a culture of inclusiveness that promotes positive leadership behaviors throughout an organization by role-modeling these behaviors themselves. Team leaders are more likely to exhibit supportive, consultative, and challenging leadership if senior leaders demonstrate inclusiveness—for example, by seeking out opinions that might differ from their own and by treating others with respect.

The importance of developing leaders at all levels

Our findings show that investing in leadership development across an organization—for all leadership positions—is an effective method for cultivating the combination of leadership behaviors that enhance psychological safety. Employees who report that their organizations invest substantially in leadership development are more likely to also report that their team leaders frequently demonstrate consultative, supportive, and challenging leadership behaviors. They also are 64 percent more likely to rate senior leaders as more inclusive (Exhibit 2). 8 However, the results suggest that the effectiveness of these programs varies depending upon the skills they address.

Organizations that invest in leadership development are more likely to see leader behaviors that foster psychological safety.
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Reorient the skills developed in leadership programs

Organizations often attempt to cover many topics in their leadership-development programs. But our findings suggest that focusing on a handful of specific skills and behaviors in these learning programs can improve the likelihood of positive leadership behaviors that foster psychological safety and, ultimately, of strong team performance. Some of the most commonly taught skills at respondents’ organizations—such as open-dialogue skills, which allow leaders to explore disagreements and talk through tension in a team—are among the ones most associated with positive leadership behaviors. However, several relatively untapped skill areas also yield beneficial results (Exhibit 3).

The skills addressed least often in development programs promote behaviors that foster psychological safety.
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Two of the less-commonly addressed skills in formal programs are predictive of positive leadership. Training in sponsorship—that is, enabling others’ success ahead of one’s own—supports both consultative- and challenging-leadership behaviors, yet just 26 percent of respondents say their organizations include the skill in development programs. And development of situational humility, which 36 percent of respondents say their organizations address, teaches leaders how to develop a personal-growth mindset and curiosity. Addressing this skill is predictive of leaders displaying consultative behaviors.

Development at the top is equally important

According to the data, fostering psychological safety at scale begins with companies’ most senior leaders developing and embodying the leadership behaviors they want to see across the organization. Many of the same skills that promote positive team-leader behaviors can also be developed among senior leaders to promote inclusiveness. For example, open-dialogue skills and development of social relationships within teams are also important skill sets for senior leaders.

In addition, several skills are more important at the very top of the organization. Situational and cultural awareness, or understanding how beliefs can be developed based on selective observations and the norms in different cultures, are both linked with senior leaders’ inclusiveness.

Looking ahead

Given the quickening pace of change and disruption and the need for creative, adaptive responses from teams at every level, psychological safety is more important than ever. The organizations that develop the leadership skills and positive work environment that help create psychological safety can reap many benefits, from improved innovation, experimentation, and agility to better overall organizational health and performance. 9

As clear as this call to action may be, “How do we develop psychological safety?” and, more specifically, “Where do we start?” remain the most common questions we are asked. These survey findings show that there is no time to waste in creating and investing in leadership development at scale to help enhance psychological safety. Organizations can start doing so in the following ways:

  • Go beyond one-off training programs and deploy an at-scale system of leadership development. Human behaviors aren’t easily shifted overnight. Yet too often we see companies try to do so by using targeted training programs alone. Shifting leadership behaviors within a complex system at the individual, team, and enterprise levels begins with defining a clear strategy aligned to the organization’s overall aspiration and a comprehensive set of capabilities that are required to achieve it. It’s critical to develop a taxonomy of skills (having an open dialogue, for example) that not only supports the realization of the organization’s overall identity but also fosters learning and growth and applies directly to people’s day-to-day work. Practically speaking, while the delivery of learning may be sequenced as a series of trainings—and rapidly codified and scaled for all leaders across a cohort or function of the organization—those trainings will be even more effective when combined with other building blocks of a broader learning system, such as behavioral reinforcements. While learning experiences look much different now than before the COVID-19 pandemic, digital learning provides large companies with more opportunities to break down silos and create new connections across an organization through learning.
  • Invest in leadership-development experiences that are emotional, sensory, and create aha moments. Learning experiences that are immersive and engaging are remembered more clearly and for a longer time. Yet a common pitfall of learning programs is an outsize focus on the content—even though it is usually not a lack of knowledge that holds leaders back from realizing their full potential. Therefore, it’s critical that learning programs prompt leaders to engage with and shift their underlying beliefs, assumptions, and emotions to bring about lasting mindset changes. This requires a learning environment that is both conducive to the often vulnerable process of learning and also expertly designed. Companies can begin with facilitated experiences that push learners toward personal introspection through targeted reflection questions and small, intimate breakout conversations. These environments can help leaders achieve increased self-awareness, spark the desire for further growth, and, with the help of reflection and feedback, drive collective growth and performance.
  • Build mechanisms to make development a part of leaders’ day-to-day work. Formal learning and skill development serve as springboards in the context of real work; the most successful learning journeys account for the rich learning that happens in day-to-day work and interactions. The use of learning nudges (that is, daily, targeted reminders for individuals) can help learners overcome obstacles and move from retention to application of their knowledge. In parallel, the organization’s most senior leaders need to be the first adopters of putting real work at the core of their development, which requires senior leaders to role model—publicly—their own processes of learning. In this context, the concept of role models has evolved; rather than role models serving as examples of the finished product, they become examples of the work in progress, high on self-belief but low on perfect answers. These examples become strong signals for leaders across the organization that it is safe to be practicing, failing, and developing on the job.

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