The evidence of low psychological safety that leaders ignore at their peril

By Heather Campbell

I’ll bet you recognise this scenario. As the senior leader, you’re running a Town Hall, or briefing your team about an upcoming change or running a virtual meeting. And every time you ask for contributions or questions or ideas, you’re met with an awkward silence, or the usual suspects make a point while everyone else remains silent. Sometimes it just feels like pulling teeth, doesn’t it?

But this situation is actually something of a gift (just takes a bit of effort to see it that way) because it’s clear evidence that psychological safety isn’t high within this team or group. It’s a gift because it lets you know that something needs your attention.

Here are three other ‘gifts’ I’ve come across recently:

  • A Director wanted to have constructive challenge between individuals at all levels when they saw others ignoring safety requirements. But nobody was challenging anyone, even when there were obvious, and potentially extremely serious, breaches.
  • A Managing Director was frustrated because the team of Directors who reported to him kept checking in with him rather than taking the initiative and driving things forward, despite their expertise and experience.
  • A Director found she spent every one-to-one listening to her direct reports complaining about their colleagues and was constantly drawn in to resolve conflict between them.

Dysfunctional behaviours like these are signs that there is a lack of psychological safety within the organisation, division or team you lead. This is a considerable cost to your organisation and to the individuals within it. It is also a cost for you, as a leader, because it drains your energy and wastes your time.

The good news is – it is also a cost that you can remove and investing in doing so will pay dividends that will multiply month after month.

Removing this cost and creating a culture of psychological safety has to begin with you and your behaviours as a leader. You drive the psychological safety in your organisation, division or team.

In one organisation I worked with – one where psychological safety was noticeably incredibly high – I asked what enabled this. The answer I got time after time?

‘It’s driven by the CEO. Whether you go to him with good new or with bad news, you get a consistently constructive and supportive response.’

Of course, this consistently constructive and supportive response created a working environment where people knew they could be open and honest. It meant that people could be vulnerable and ask for help. It also meant that people’s performance and productivity was constantly improving, although it was already so high.

I shared the details of this story with another Managing Director in the early stages of a coaching relationship with him. ‘Ah’, he replied, ‘But if I did that, people here wouldn’t care any longer. The culture would become flabby and complacent. People need to feel scared to perform in this organisation.’

When I heard that, I knew I had my work cut out. But I love a challenge!

In my next email, I’ll share with you exactly what this Managing Director had to change personally, and how he changed it, in order to truly create a positive, productive culture. I think the solution will surprise you!

Catch you next week and, remember, always observe yourself and others with interest and learning, not with criticism and judgement.

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