Colleagues feeling psychologically safe to speak their ideas and thoughts

Why for many, psychological safety isn’t working and what to do about it

In the dynamic landscape of today’s workplace, fostering a culture that encourages both psychological safety and psychological bravery is essential for performance and wellbeing.

Organisations that help their leaders create this sense of belonging which empowers their people to share ideas, speak up, give feedback, and challenge the status quo, will innovate, and adapt to change faster with fewer inefficiencies and unwanted costs.

Human leadership styles have shown to be essential to create both the safety and the bravery required for people to lean into their unique roles in a team and take ownership for their development and performance – something which is vital to help organisations do more with less and overcome change positively together.

Setting the stage

Psychological safety holds many definitions, but in practice, it centres around people’s perception of consequences when taking action. In other words, when psychological safety is present, people feel safe to express their authentic selves, share new (and potentially ‘wrong’ or ‘silly’ ideas!), and feel empowered to make decisions or calculated risks without fear of failure or negative consequences on self or career.

The challenge with this is of course, that although an environment is the responsibility of the team, leader and organisation, the reason so many leaders struggle is that it’s ultimately the perception of the individual which holds the key. Someone could, for example, be in a truly inclusive and safe environment but, because of past experiences, have learned to act in a less open and safe way for fear of being ‘burned’.

This is why organisations who talk about psychological safety find it, in reality, incredibly difficult to achieve – especially in industries where making a mistake can be fatal or severe (think healthcare, pharma, engineering, etc). In addition, and in the famous words of Warren Buffet, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” Just one slip from a leader can ruin the trust established over time and reduce the safety experienced by the individual and possibly the team.

The trouble with this is leaders themselves are under increasing scrutiny and pressure, and so, of course, they will slip up; they’re human too, so what can organisations do about it? Is it a realistic ask of people to feel completely safe at work all of the time? What can organisations do to create a culture which accepts no one is perfect but that, ultimately, people should remain safe and feel brave enough to step forward and lean into their unique contribution?

Human Leadership, the key to brave organisations

Human Leadership is a form of transformational leadership which helps organisations create a purpose-led, people and planet-first workplace culture. The emphasis, of a human leader is the ability to drive results and do so in an emotionally intelligent, authentic, and inclusive way, leading from the front to role-model the behaviours, attitudes, and decisions they expect of the people in their teams.

By strengthening leaders’ skills and ability to prioritise a greater sense of meaning, empathy, active listening, strengths-based coaching and transparency of communication, organisations can create an atmosphere where people feel valued, heard, and safe to express their ideas and diversity.

Importantly, what this does is balances the responsibility of psychological safety into the hands of the team – the experience of safety isn’t something which happens to you, it becomes something you can come together as a team to take control of. Everyday actions and consistent role-modelling of these human-first behaviours create the open two-way communication critical for a psychologically safe and ensure people apply bravery in the inevitable instances safety isn’t present.

When psychological safety and emotional intelligence aren’t the overwhelming experiences from the leader, it can be difficult to establish this courage and bravery, however, by educating, equipping and building the right habits in leaders, organisations can ensure teams and individuals, rather than detach or disengage when they feel a lack of safety, they instead challenge and collaborate, managing upwards by providing effective and positive feedback giving leaders the trust and opportunity to rectify their actions.

A human leader will remain open to these challenges, being aware of their actions and the impact on others, remaining non-judgemental and quickly re-establishing trust and safety essential for tackling complex challenges and achieving shared goals in fast-paced environments.

Check out our workshops designed to create psychologically safe leaders and environments.