When Covid hit, my coaching conversations quickly began to center around the complex arena of psychological safety. Remember the scene and the context. The movie Contagion was literally playing out in real life. Police shootings sparked full on riots in my home island Manhattan. The choice of our countries leader was kerosine on the anger of half the population.
Pause for a second to go off topic. Things were so absurd that I’m convinced someone in government made the executive call to “Tell the public Aliens are real. But not like directly. Just show them some compelling footage from the military that will distract them from everything else. People love aliens.” WHAT!?!
Ok thank you for joining me on that little trip. Back to psychological safety.
The goal of PS makes perfect sense right? Let’s foster an environment where every voice is not only heard but valued. The reality of nurturing that type of culture is much more difficult. It requires that we steer away from the archetype of the commanding bosses to a leader who listens authentically and takes action based on what they’ve heard from their constituents. Which in this case are their teams.
My experience with a few handfuls of senior leaders through this tumultuous period reveal that creating such a space is so much more nuanced than simply inviting opinions. It requires a genuine willingness to do something with and about what is being shared.
The leaders I coached had mixed results. The ones who nailed it dropped their self-interest and opened their minds. The one’s who failed spectacularly opened the floor and listened but had already made a decision on what they would do next. I imagine their hope was that people would arrive at the same decision. If not, they did what they wanted anyway. They would have been better off not asking for input.
Leadership Reimagined, My Approach: The divide between a 'boss' and a 'leader' is significant, stretching far beyond semantics. A boss might focus on compliance, but a leader nurtures innovation and champions growth. This journey isn't just about altering behaviors but fundamentally shifting mindsets, from a focus on tasks to a focus on people and potential.
The Gap in Leadership, My Observations: I've documented a trend: many leaders express a desire for open dialogue but inadvertently create a facade of psychological safety. Real safety empowers teams to voice concerns without fear, leading to a thriving, candid workplace culture. False safety asks questions that have already been answered or gathers input on decisions that are only going one way. It’s contrived. It reeks. People instinctively smell it.
Tangible Transformations, My Case Studies: I've collaborated with industry leaders who've successfully embraced psychological safety. A FT/100 Financial Services company I’ve worked with for years integrated candid feedback into their culture during Covid, resulting in an astounding improvement in innovation. This is a good one.
This company has a massive customer care department. Massive. It was an accepted impossibility to make these roles remote. So, they never fleshed out a strategy for how to make it work. Then Covid lit a bonfire under them, and they had to figure it out immediately.
At the time, I was working with the newly appointed leader who sets the bar for that title. He genuinely asked the service reps how they thought it could work. In two months, they solved all the “impossible” tech and security issues corporate said defied gravity.
My Strategies for Authentic Leadership: Here's how I guide leaders to genuinely welcome diverse perspectives:
Encourage Open Communication:
True leaders ask questions (they master the art of probing to get to the molten core of what’s most important) and are prepared to hear the answers, fostering a two-way communication channel that builds partnership and trust.
They have the confidence to say, “I don’t know how to solve this on my own”. Acknowledging one's own limitations paves the way for others to share freely, transforming vulnerability into a strength. You don’t have to have all the answers. That’s why organizations exist!
Constructive feedback is a gift; I coach leaders to receive it with grace and gratitude, translating insights into action. In all our relationships we have to be comfortable with our imperfections. It’s a platitude to say “no one is perfect” when you act like you are supposed to be.
Navigate Failure with Accountability:
When we are children and we break something, someone comes rushing into the room and asks us “what happened”. There is no possibility that it wasn’t us but in a child’s mind it is perfectly reasonable to say, “I don’t know, it wasn’t me.” Then we grow up and when we break, or spill, or lose something we hopefully have the maturity to simply say “My bad, I made a mistake.”
Instead of shying away from errors, I advise leaders to confront them with a balance of accountability and compassion, ensuring lessons are learned and dignity is maintained.
Creating a Safe Haven, My Leadership Philosophy: Psychological safety is the bedrock upon which high-performing teams are built. It's about striking a balance between comfort and constructive conflict, allowing for the dissonance that sparks innovation. In my practice, I've seen that when leaders demonstrate humility and genuine curiosity, they unlock a treasure trove of insights from their teams.
Conclusion: As leaders, we must be diligent in our pursuit of psychological safety, not as a performative act but as a sincere effort to elevate our teams. It's a delicate dance between fostering harmony and embracing the chaos of creativity.
Please champion authenticity. “Fake it till you make it” has no place here. Join me in crafting a leadership legacy that's grounded in truth, courage, and real connection.
Call to action: To understand more about PS and how to make it a part of your leadership culture, give me a shout!