Psychological safety in times of pandemic: what is the role of the leader?

According to Amy Edmondson, professor of leadership at Harvard Business School and author of the book “The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth,” psychological safety is “the absence of interpersonal fear.” In other words, there is psychological safety when employees feel comfortable taking risks, asking for help, sharing feelings, opinions, and suggestions, or even challenging the status quo without fear of negative consequences.

Several studies have indicated that psychological safety is a precursor to a more innovative, more creative, more agile and more adaptive performance at any level: individual, team or organization.

One good example is the study conducted at Google with more than 180 teams in the context of the Aristotle Project. The intention was to find out what makes a team more effective and more successful. The conclusion was that the characteristic that most determines the success of the team is psychological safety. This was specially outstanding when considering that the study evaluated 250 individual attributes and dynamics of interaction.

Covid19 has brought a period of extraordinary uncertainty about our physical and economic security. Nobody knows what will be the context in which we will live and work in the next 6 months,12 months, or even beyond. In the meantime, companies and organizations are trying to adapt to this rapid pace of change. When considering current unpredictability; and the urgent need for creative, agile, and easily adaptable responses, building environments of psychological safety is more important than ever. And it should not be considered as a “bonus “or a “privilege”. Psychological safety needs to be a building block of any culture and business in the future.

A global study conducted by McKinsey during the pandemic concluded that the environment conducive to greater psychological safety begins at the top of the organization. However, few leaders demonstrate positive behaviors that promote psychological safety. The same study suggests that companies should start by investing in organization-wide leadership programs with development experiences that are emotional and sensory, that promote learning processes, and that facilitate personal introspection. Thus, companies can help their leaders achieve greater self-knowledge, awaken the desire for greater growth and, with the help of reflection and feedback, drive growth and collective performance.

And how can leaders be catalysts for psychological safety? Here we offer some straight forward suggestions:

  • Be an example. Self-knowledge and emotional self-management are so important, especially in times of crisis, because leaders become the center of emotional contagion, both positive and helpful, or negative and unhelpful. If the leader does not model sustainable and healthy behaviors (taking care of himself, getting enough sleep, taking breaks, being compassionate and respectful…), it is very difficult for his collaborators to do different, and they will mimic the leader.
  • Be curious. The leader can and should also learn from others. It is important to cultivate curiosity and ask questions, genuinely ask for feedback, listen openly, especially when there are different opinions and different point views.
  • Promote respect. To stimulate creativity and innovation, the leader must allow and facilitate employees to intervene and offer their opinion, avoiding any type of judgment, wherever it comes from, either on them or from others in the team. Expressions like “that doesn’t make sense”, “what do you know about it?”, “what an absurdity!” can arise impulsively and fully generate a blockage.  
  • Recognize courageous actions. It is important not to ignore or devalue employee’s contributions. Sharing an idea, asking a question, or making a mistake can be a vulnerable act of courage that should be recognized and valued.
  • Create connection. If this was already a challenge in a context of face-to-face work, the current online context becomes even more of a challenge. Starting an online meeting by immediately jumping to the proposed topic or task can feel too invasive and aggressive. It is important to hold the space to recognize the person and their context, building greater trust and facilitating interactions that are emotionally more enjoyable.

Of course, the leader shares the responsibility to create a positive and psychologically safer context with others. This attitude should be part of the behavior of all team and organizational members. Learning and practicing active listening, with curiosity and without judgment; asking for feedback with openness; showing empathy and compassion; expressing opinions honestly and politely; knowing how to praise, encourage, and express gratitude; and accepting other points of view are behaviors that are part of a safer and more constructive, more creative, and healthier environments.

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