Research repeatedly shows that psychological safety allows for moderate risk-taking, speaking our minds and creativity – all attributes that lead to business innovation and growth.
Leaders who create a sense of psychological safety in their teams can expect to see higher levels of engagement, increased motivation to tackle difficult problems, more learning and development opportunities, and overall a better performance.
Why psychological safety matters
A few years ago, Google conducted a two-year long study into team performance which has shown that the one thing that all high-performing teams have in common is psychological safety – the reassurance that everyone can speak up openly and won’t be punished for making mistakes, but instead mistakes will be seen as an opportunity for learning. When employees feel comfortable asking for help and challenging the status quo without negative consequences, organisations can unlock the benefits of rapid innovation and adapting to change.
McKinsey’s research from earlier this year has also found that a positive team climate has a stronger effect on psychological safety in teams that experienced a greater degree of change in remote work during the pandemic, yet only 43 percent reported a positive climate within the team. The research also highlighted that the leadership team’s authoritative-leadership behaviours are detrimental to psychological safety, while consultative- and supportive-leadership behaviours promote psychological safety.
The role of leaders in fostering psychological safety
Fostering psychological safety depends on the ability of leaders to learn and demonstrate authentic behaviours that help their employees thrive. The most effective way to build a climate of psychological safety is by role modelling and reinforcing the behaviours leaders expect from their teams. By setting the right tone for the team climate through their own actions, leaders have the most significant influence on the psychological safety in their organisation.
Mistakes are not intentional and when they happen, leaders need to look beyond blame and finger pointing, and instead focus on instilling a culture where mistakes can be fixed and learnt from. Neuroscience confirms that the human brain works to keep us safe above all else, and therefore we respond to threads such as uncertainty, unexplained change or a toxic work environment by keeping our heads down and avoiding speaking up. This, in turn leads to less problems being identified which subsequently prevents us from learning.
Investing in leadership development across all leadership levels is an effective method for cultivating leadership behaviours 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 supportive, and authentic leadership behaviours.