Why might Leaders care about Psychological Safety?

19th Jan 2024

By Andrew McNeill, co-founder of LXLeaders

When I first heard the phrase psychological safety, it was talked about in terms of wellbeing. How teams feel about where they work and with whom they work. I got it, I get it. Work is often stressful, with pressure hitting people from all sides. If people feel that their own team, or boss, is not supportive then this can lead to anxiety and all the consequences that can flow from tough working environments. That all made, and makes sense to me.

But I also was aware that it was only half the story. I’ve had the privilege of being on the Boards of multi-billion-pound programmes and also I have regularly attended the executive boards of some massive organisations. One of the things that fascinates me about these small groups of people responsible for big money and delivery, is that they are entirely dependent on others around them to tell them what is actually going on.

Psychological Safety leadership business organisations HR Andrew McNeill Great British Speakers

The mega programmes that we have created are so complex they can be mind boggling, with multiple stakeholders often with competing agendas and drivers. The same can be true for large organisations. When I am on a Board responsible for programme or organisational delivery, I need to be confident that the people around me feel safe to put their hands up if something is going wrong. However, if my team is concerned that they will be laughed at, not taken seriously, or that raising an issue could negatively affect their careers, what are the chances that they will feel safe enough to say ‘Andrew – I think there is a risk over here that no-one has noticed’?

The same is true when it comes to opportunities for business growth. For instance, I’m not necessarily the person talking to a new client, or identifying where they may need some additional help. It may fall to the team member who knows the client best and can see where they could do with more support. If my team don’t feel safe to be able to say: ‘I think this client needs our help and we should usefully reach out to them’, that opportunity could easily be missed.

For me, psychological safety isn’t just about my team feeling comfortable at work, in an environment that is conducive to creative thinking and delivery: although it is all those things as well. It is also about identifying and mitigating risk early, spotting the opportunities for business development and converting them to new work.

Psychological Safety | What can we do about it?

I think the first stop for creating psychological safety must be talking with your team and agreeing how best to work together. This conversation can be challenging and needs skilful facilitation. If people have not felt safe, they will probably tell you why and this can be hard to share and hard to hear. The conversation though is only part of the process. You also need to do something about it. If changes are needed, they must be implemented and maintained. Bad habits are difficult to get rid of and can easily creep back.  So, you need to figure out how to avoid that happening and challenge any unconstructive behaviours when they occur?

Psychological Safety leadership at work HR Andrew McNeill Great British Speakers

Psychological Safety | How can we measure it?

Another interesting challenge is how to record the agreed ways of working and set the whole team on a path to achieving them? There often is a degree of scepticism about ‘Team Charters’- documents that set out the way a Team will behave with each other and the world beyond the Team.  I sympathise, as Charters can be meaningless and nothing more than a tick box exercise – ‘we’ve done psychological safety now and can move on’ – but equally I have worked with teams to help them agree their “team ethics” and it has had a transformative effect on their ability to deliver and share openly in a ‘safe’ environment.

Why is this approach so impactful? I think it’s because the leadership has taken the time to acknowledge that how a team works together as a group is important and it is not just about what they are doing and hitting deadlines. When this is set out in black and white, the team can refer back to it and it helps to ensure everyone reaches those agreed standards.

This can be particularly impactful when people actually ‘sign up’ to the team’s agreed ways of working. Having verbally agreed to the charter, there is then a physical ‘signing ceremony’.  I’m not a psychologist but I understand the power of ritual and the physical manifestation of a personal commitment to a charter.  This process can be very powerful for a team.

Once we’ve done all this hard work, what do we do with it?   Well, one important thing is to revisit the charter, because if it sits on a shared drive somewhere, never to be seen again, it’s not going to change anything. In fact, even worse than doing nothing it can damage people’s trust. Having hoped that things might change, the team may feel that this work was just “tokenistic” and resulted in nothing more than broken promises. But, using the charter in a supportive way for measuring how the team is doing against their written commitments, can keep the ethos on track.

Psychological Safety and Trust

Trust is another key element to enable psychological safety to develop. I love the analogy of the ‘trust battery’. When we join an employer, we have a certain amount of trust in the organisation. Every interaction with our boss and potentially other leaders within the business will impact either positively or negatively on that trust.  It’s not about getting what I want, but more about the leadership being straight with me and sticking to their commitments. The consequences of letting people down can be enormous not just for the individual, but also for the business.  

For instance, in my own career, I can trace back my decision to leave one particular organisation to being let down by a leader within it some considerable time earlier. So, if I’m the leader letting people down and breaking their trust; I may not feel the organisational pain straight away but when I do, it will be at a time that works for the person I’ve let down, not me.

Psychological Safety leadership Andrew McNeill Great British Speakers

Psychological Safety – How does your workplace feel?

When thinking about psychological safety, we need to consider how it feels to come to work. In the past, I have gone to work in places and with teams that I did not feel respected or ‘part of’. It’s a dreadful feeling.  I never want my team members to be dreading coming to work. I also ardently believe in supporting wellbeing in the workplace. We spend so much time at work that the consequences of not supporting wellbeing can be catastrophic for team members and all those close to them.

Psychological Safety and Leaders

I strongly believe that psychological safety is critical to the success of a team and their leaders. Without it, there is a very real risk that leaders won’t hear the bad or the good news and the team won’t be able to act to mitigate risks or maximise opportunities.

Psychological Safety from here…

A few simple steps, such as talking with a team, working out together what is needed for people to feel psychologically safe, implementing any changes and sticking to our word as leaders has the potential to have a really positive impact.  Knowing this can transform the way teams feel about their work and the organisation for whom they work, why wouldn’t leaders want to develop a psychologically safe culture?

About the author:

Andrew McNeill book Psychological Safety Mindfulness wellness keynote speaker at agent Great British Speakers
Andrew McNeill – co-founder of LXLeaders

Andrew McNeill, is a former senior leader in the UK Civil Service, emphasises the need for leadership techniques that align with the values of mindfulness, compassion, and empathy. He merges his expertise in leadership with his teachings in mindfulness to assist organizations in incorporating mindfulness practices. Andrew provides leadership training to diverse organisations, aiding individuals and teams in enhancing performance and Psychological Safety.

Find out more about Andrew and his full scope of talk topics HERE and if the content of this article resonates with you and you’d like to learn more about how LxLeaders can help you build psychological safety in your organisation, or support your leadership and team potential more widely, feel free to reach out to him at info@LXLeaders.com

To book Andrew McNeill contact us at Great British Speakers Bureau on 01753 439289 or email bookings@greatbritishtalent.com

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