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7 Ways Leaders Can Foster A Psychological Safe Company Culture

People need a safe and trusting environment to perform at their best.

Getting the commitment and buy-in of employees (as well as peers and senior management) is never easy, especially when it involves some sort of change that requires a mental and behavioral shift. One way to accomplish such a feat, according to the principles of evolved people management, is to make sure that people feel psychologically safe.

Organizational leaders ignorant of this basic concept are easily identified: they keep information close to their chest; they make careless off hand comments; they behave inconsistently; they play favorites; they blame others for failures but are quick to take credit for successes; they micromanage and humiliate; they pit people against each other; they stoke conflict rather than resolve it and otherwise threaten people implicitly and explicitly.

In contrast, enlightened leaders, seeking to make it easy for people to buy into a leader’s vision of a better future, recognize them for their accomplishments, give them direction and feedback, help them understand the why of the work they do, treat them fairly, and bestow on them at least some autonomy over how they meet their goals.

These various efforts all rest on one basic tenet of human behavior: People need a safe and trusting environment to perform at their best. Deep in our DNA there is a voice whispering that if we feel unsafe, we must minimize risk, lest we end up with our head on a platter. If employees are fearful, they will put their energy into avoiding risk rather than engaging in analytic thinking, problem solving, and the spirited creative process necessary to pursue important goals.

When the people at Google investigated what made a team successful, they found that psychological safety was “far and away the most important” factor. Julia Rozovsky, a Google analyst, noted that “the safer team members feel with one another, the more likely they are to admit mistakes, to partner, and to take on new roles.” Only when colleagues felt that they could take risks without being punished did they really push themselves.

The smart idea then is to create a culture in which people feel safe to speak up, to make mistakes and learn from them, and to have a chance to be part of the decision-making process, if only to be asked for their input. This is especially critical in small-group settings in which you have regular contact with your colleagues and peers. It is through their interactions with you that they will learn that you can be trusted to encourage them, to give them honest feedback, and to keep your word.

Here are some ideas that can help you foster a climate of psychological safety:

  • Respect others. The most basic way to get people to follow you is to respect them. Tell them that you rely on their skills and that you appreciate their e orts, and they’ll step up for you. Even more importantly, show that you trust them by letting them actually do the work. Don’t micromanage; instead, have a conversation with them about your expectations, answer their questions, and let them get on with their work. If you trust them, chances are they’ll trust you back.
  • Find out what they expect from you. If you’ve moved from one culture to another, be it across international boundaries or just from one corporate style to another, find out what your colleagues and employees expect from you. Do they expect to be consulted when making decisions? Do they expect decisions and deadlines to be firm or flexible? Do they expect you to tell them exactly how you’d like something done, or are they used to accomplishing goals in their own way? Learning what others expect may prompt you to adjust your style, as well as give you the opportunity to explain to them just what your style is.
  • Be clear about what you expect from them. Few things are more frustrating to employees than being forced to guess what managers want. Tell them what you expect from them and then evaluate them by the standards that you set. If you want to see more risk taking, don’t punish them when they extend themselves and fail; instead, work with them to make the risk pay off. If you call a meeting to brainstorm, encourage them to think big; but if the aim of the meeting is how to make something work, keep the focus on the practicalities.
  • Set the direction and stay the course if possible. Just as guess- work wastes time, constantly changing the purpose of a project can be demoralizing. People crave certainty and are more likely to invest themselves in their work when they know that investment will pay off. Even if they’re used to having flexible deadlines and revisiting decisions, wholesale and abrupt course changes can throw everyone off. If the direction does change, give your employees as much advance notice as possible. Keep them looped in, and they’ll adjust their sails with minimal fuss.
  • Reduce uncertainty. Setting direction and being clear about expectations will substantially reduce uncertainty. However, sometimes those general tactics are not enough to allay anxiety, and you have to investigate the particular triggers driving those concerns. Will the mission result in time pressures and too much evening and weekend work? Will it place the employees in a role in which they feel unprepared or uncomfortable? Will they feel supported in their role or alone with their sense of inadequacy? Are there enough rewards—do they understand what’s in it for them? Do the stakes have implications for their careers or their immediate sense of wellness? Sometimes it is impossible to remove uncertainty from a mission, but you can strive to make them feel assured of their psychological safety and the availability of support. By keeping everyone in the loop and communicating frequently, you become the light your employees follow in the dark, which empowers them to buy into and support your decisions.
  • Be human. There is a great need for social intelligence. Demonstrating empathy and vulnerability with a request for buy-in helps others feel your recommendations rather than just hear them. Make your pitch personal: Research shows that people are more likely to help an individual in need than they are to contribute to a generic charity. Asking others for help signals anything but weakness, even if that seems counterintuitive. People have a natural instinct to help others. Tap into it.
  • Be the real deal. Your credibility is the pivotal variable in how people respond to your requests. Make sure you’re on solid ground, and if not, bring the data and the reinforcements necessary to qualify you as their leader. People value expertise and experience in their leaders, and it takes more than a title and a few boxes of pizza to get people on board with your ideas. Don’t be afraid to showcase your competence, delivered with genuine warmth, and you’re likely to bring even the skeptics around.

No matter what the setting, to get buy-in clear communication always matters. Whether in one-on-one sessions or at large town hall–style meetings, whether with subordinates or with superiors, if you can’t clearly and simply convey your point, people will tune out. But if you can, you’ll find their ears—and minds—wide open. 


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