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Promoting psychological safety starts with developing leaders

Organizations that foster psychological safety can reap many benefits to team health and performance.
Aaron De Smet

Delivers growth, innovation, and organizational agility and is an expert on culture change, leadership development, team effectiveness, capability building, and transformation

Organizations that instill psychological safety are more likely to innovate quickly, unlock the benefits of diversity, and adapt well to change—all of which have grown in importance during the COVID-19 crisis. In a professional climate that promotes psychological safety, employees feel comfortable asking for help, sharing suggestions informally, or challenging the status quo without fear of negative social consequences.

Our recent research suggests how organizations can foster such an atmosphere. Doing so depends on leaders at all levels learning and demonstrating specific behaviors that help their employees thrive.

Setting the tone at the top

In a McKinsey Global Survey conducted during the pandemic, just 43 percent of all respondents reported a positive team climate, the most important driver of psychological safety. Addressing this starts at the very top of an organization. By setting the tone through their own actions, leaders have the strongest influence on psychological safety. Three key leader behaviors are:

  • Consultative: Solicit input from team members and consider team views on issues that affect them.
  • Supportive: Demonstrate concern and support for team members not only as employees but also as individuals.
  • Challenging: Ask team members to reexamine assumptions about their work and how they can exceed expectations and fulfill their potential.

Senior leaders can act as catalysts, empowering and enabling others by role modeling and reinforcing behaviors they expect from the rest of the team.

Developing leaders at all levels

Organizations that invest in leadership development are more likely to see leader behaviors that foster psychological safety. Employees who reported that their organizations invested a lot in leadership development were more likely to report that their team leaders frequently demonstrated consultative, supportive, and challenging behaviors. They also were 64 percent more likely to rate senior leaders as more inclusive. However, results suggest that the effectiveness of these programs varies depending upon the skills they address.

Reorienting skills developed in leadership programs

Our findings suggest that focusing on a handful of specific skills, such as sponsorship (enabling others’ success ahead of one’s own) and situational humility (developing a personal-growth mindset), can improve the likelihood that leaders demonstrate the behaviors that foster psychological safety. Investing in leadership-development programs can equip leaders to embody these behaviors and cultivate psychological safety across the organization:

  • Go beyond one-off trainings and develop leadership at scale. 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. Digital models honed during the pandemic give companies more opportunities to break down siloes and create new connections.
  • Invest in emotional and sensory development experiences. People remember immersive and engaging experiences more clearly and for a longer time. 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 expertly designed learning environments that increase self-awareness, spark the desire for further growth, and drive collective growth and performance.
  • Make development part of leaders’ daily work. The most successful learning journeys account for the rich learning that happens in day-to-day work. The use of learning nudges (daily, targeted reminders) can help learners overcome obstacles and apply new knowledge. Senior leaders should publicly role-model their own learning processes, providing strong signals across the organization that it is safe to practice, develop, and even fail on the job.

The quickening pace of change, and the need for creative, adaptive responses from teams at every level, means psychological safety is more important than ever. Organizations that develop the leadership skills and positive work environment that foster psychological safety can reap many benefits to team health and performance.

The authors would like to thank Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, and Gunnar Schrah for their meaningful contributions to this post.

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