Leading with a Culture of Psychological Safety - Here's How!

What is psychological safety? Why is it needed?

Psychological safety is a profound contributing factor that can encourage effective performance, and offer mentally and physically healthy spaces. Imagine your mind radiating positive energy and lighting up your environment. Sounds metaphysical? Ah, not really. But you get the point.

Have you heard of companies talking about cultures of “being-yourself”? That’s exactly what it means, whether or not they are able to really foster such cultures. Any human being if positioned in a safe environment operates from an authentic sphere and feels comfortable and optimally performs activities. A contrary culture, like a culture of fear, will do the opposite. 

How does culture offer psychological safety?

Culture is basically a set of behavioral norms that people of an organization follow. It is the civilization and the immune system of the organization. When we interact with each other, we are in fundamentally in an interpersonal relationship that is based on three prime factors:
  1. Inclusion factor: When everyone is included or excluded during interactions and activities that can impact the sense of belonging. 
  2. Influence factor: When everyone is offered a degree of influence that they either reflect or receive comfortably and as per their needs.
  3. Connection factor: When everyone is able to connect with each other at a personal level, depending upon their degree of preference. 
All these interpersonal factors are at play in organizational culture in the context of psychological safety. Depending upon the degree of their presence, the levels of psychological safety varies.

Harry Stack Sullivan, a pioneer psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst believed through his understanding of complex interpersonal relationships that perceiving, remembering, thinking, imagining and all other psychological processes are interpersonal in nature (source). 

Don't you think, all these psychological processes are important to perform at your best? Indeed, they are. Interpersonal needs and relationships are therefore important to be fundamentally understood to create grounds for psychological safety.

How to develop and lead a culture of Psychological Safety?

Creating a culture of psychological safety is not rocket science. Perhaps, it is a blend of art and science, where the common denominator is "being human" and using common sense. 

Remember, we all work to succeed. Nobody works to fail. Keeping the 3 interpersonal factors in mind, we can set up an environment that meets those interpersonal needs of people and help them all succeed.

Here are some ways to get you started on how to create positive conditions and lead with a psychological safety stance:
  • Make efforts to understand, what drives people around you: Keep the 3 interpersonal relationship needs in mind. Notice, ask questions, observe, use feedback mechanism and do what it takes to really understand what drives people and motivates them. Have those crucial conversations if needed. But know it at the end. As a leader, have high expectations but know how to meet people where they are, not where you want them to be.
  • Respecting perspectives and having voices on the table: True leadership is not about operating from the spheres of ego and power. It is about being inclusive and respecting the diversity of people and perspectives. Remember, we all see the world through the lens of all our past experiences (source). So, keep your curiosity alive. There's much more that you haven't thought of and might not know about. Allow people to express their ideas and thoughts freely and respectfully.
  • Encouraging healthy conflict: If your environment allows people to express themselves freely, then there are chances of conflict that don't have to be detrimental. Create opportunities and spaces for people to engage in conflicts that can bring out new ideas, result in discoveries and innovations. Facilitate such conversations and solve big problems with the power of a good question.
  • Aiming for effectiveness than efficiency: As leaders, many of us start feeling the responsibility of being right and adding perfection to everything. But that's not how it works in the real world. Anyone can be highly efficient at a task not even required to be done. Effectiveness is the fundamental and the ultimate factor that leads organizations to success. Keep the end in mind at the beginning. You might want to read the global bestseller, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to learn more about effectiveness and what the author, Stephen Covey has to say. Effectiveness is an outcome of safe, authentic and trusting environments, where character is more important than personality and leaders walk the talk than just talk the talk. It is simply an outcome of engaged employees, teams and organizations. As Simon Sinek says in his book and video - Leaders Eat Last, "leadership reduces the threats people feel inside the group, which frees them up to focus more time and energy to protect the organization from the constant dangers outside and seize the big opportunities.” That's effectiveness.

All these strategies come down to providing a safe space and environment to people and encouraging greater learning, innovation, inclusion, and strong relationships. The strength of psychologically safe environments lies in accepting that vulnerability, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity are a part of our reality that offers wonderful opportunities to practice and harness the power of psychological safety.

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Sahil Sharma
Talent, Learning & Leadership Development Professional | Certified Leadership Coach

For consultation and services, contact us at www.ledxlearning.com