Leadership and Psychological Safety

Fred knew as soon as he arrived as the new team leader that he had inherited a group with a difficult history. When he met with the team on the first day, the group’s spirit was glum. His conversations with key members over the first few days were guarded. They said the right things about being on board for new initiatives, but no one ever raised a new idea. They just went along with whatever Fred had to say.

On Friday of his first week, he got a taste of the team’s dynamics. Three long-term members of the unit dropped by his office unannounced. They made idle conversation for a bit. Then one of them said, “We’ve gone through 4 team leaders in the past 3 years. I guess we’ll see how long you’ll last.

Fred felt the intimidation in the message. Although he had confidence in his capacity to stand up to this pressure, he knew that others in the team could not count on such resilience.

Fred concluded that turning this team around required a vigorous and positive strategy.

Why Leaders Should Care About Psychological Safety

Our surveys consistently show that team leaders are the major driver of psychological safety. When that relationship is going well, people have the confidence to speak honestly and to share new ideas. When it’s going poorly they withdraw.

  • They check out other jobs.
  • They miss a lot of time from work.
  • They don’t say much when they are at work.

In light of this, Fred needs an effective tool for increasing psychological safety.

One Strategy

Fred starts with meeting individually with each team member. His objective in each meeting is to emerge from the meeting with one new idea. To get there, Fred maintains a consistently open attitude that he conveys by voicing encouragement and expressing gratitude for team members’ ideas.

Fred also knows how to be firm when anyone attempts to intimidate him. It’s important that these discussions occur within a one-on-one conversation. Then there can be hope to build a constructive relationship without the team member loosing face.

This strategy takes time to evolve. Fred has to ward off pressure from his manager to see this strategy through. It can work but there’s no guarantees.

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