How leaders can tell if they’re creating an environment of psychological safety in meetings (and the workplace in general)

By Heather Campbell

Do you create an environment of psychological safety? How can you tell?

Answering these two questions accurately is incredibly tough.

First of all, you can’t just ask people. Last week, I highlighted why this won’t work. Quite simply, the less psychologically safe they feel the environment is, the more likely people are to tell you that you do! They don’t feel psychologically safe enough to say anything else.

Secondly, it will be surprisingly tough for you to believe that you do anything other than create an environment of psychological safety. As leaders, we tend to believe we are open, approachable, transparent, constructive – all essential elements of leadership for psychological safety. We find it hard to objectively recognise the negative behaviours we display.

So, does this mean you have to close your eyes and hope for the best? I’d suggest not. The benefits of psychological safety are too important to both individual well-being and business performance to leave it to chance.

But what can you do?

Here’s how I help leaders figure out if they are successfully creating an environment of psychological safety. It all starts with you, the leader, honestly assessing how much psychological safety you feel. You see, if you feel psychologically safe yourself, your behaviours will show that. You’ll naturally be open, transparent and constructive. You’ll naturally avoid blame, micro-management and defensiveness.

This, in turn, will allow others to feel psychologically safe around you.

You need to feel psychological safety in relation to three key people/groups:

  • Your boss
  • Your direct reports
  • Yourself

To ascertain how much psychological safety you feel, here are some questions to reflect on.

Your boss: Is my boss consistently constructive in their interactions with me and with my colleagues? Does my boss give me regular, constructive feedback so that I am confident I am delivering what they need? Does my boss support me? Does my boss set a consistent direction? Does my boss seek to give me the resources I need to perform at my best? Do I trust my boss to be constructively honest with me?

Your team: Do I trust each individual in my team? Do I trust my team as a cohesive unit? Do I believe my direct reports have the skills they need to fulfil their roles to the required standard? Do I believe they will deliver and take accountability? Do I trust that they will give me accurate, complete information, including when things aren’t going to plan? Do I trust that my direct reports ‘have my back’? Do I trust my direct reports to respect confidentiality of information I share and that we share as a team? Do I trust my direct reports to make good decisions?

Yourself: Do I believe that I have the skills I need to fulfil my role? Do I feel in control of my workload? Am I confident that I can deliver to the required standard? Do I feel confident to ask for help and support from my boss and my colleagues? Do I feel respected and valued by my boss and my colleagues?

  • The more times your response to these questions is ‘yes’, the more psychological safety you will experience in all aspects of your role.
  • The more times your response to these questions is ‘yes’, the less anxious and stressed you will feel at any given point in time.
  • This will translate into the constructive leadership behaviours that allow others to experience psychological safety too.

And equally, the more often your response is ‘no’, the more distorted your leadership behaviours are likely to be.

So, the first step in figuring out whether your team experiences psychological safety is to honestly assess what you’re experiencing.

Next week, I’ll share the team behaviours you should pay attention to because these will help you ascertain what’s really going on too.

And, as always, observe yourself and others with interest and learning, not with criticism and judgement.

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