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Leadership Development Programs

Psychological Safety: Digging Deep Within

Examining psychological safety, why it boosts performance, and why it matters

  • June 2021

Psychological safety is something of a buzzword in management circles right now. Increasingly, it’s seen as a key driver of performance. As a leader, now is a good time to examine your own practice: are you giving your teams the freedom to experiment, to take risks, to fail—and come back stronger? Do you give yourself the same permission to face your fears?

Do your teams feel safe to follow their instincts?

As Timothy R. Clark, author of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety,1 defines it, psychological safety is “a condition in which human beings feel included, safe to learn, safe to contribute, and safe to challenge the status quo—all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way.” If we don’t feel safe, instinct kicks in, telling us to protect ourselves. While some of us can still fly, others fight, flee or freeze.

As a leader, part of your task is to trust your employees with this kind of freedom—to speak openly or to try something new, and all without harsh judgement. This is the space that a visionary manager wants their team members to inhabit, and where they can thrive. Psychological safety isn’t about being nice: it’s about striking a balance between rigor and care when giving feedback, admitting mistakes, and learning from them.

The give and take starts with hiring: to attract the best talent, you need to offer more than a great salary. An open, respectful culture is high on potential employees’ wish lists. This is where psychological safety becomes paramount. Treating people compassionately drives human performance: when people feel safe, they are more fulfilled and connected, creative and innovative—and they stay in their jobs longer. You just need to trust and respect them sufficiently to let them follow their instincts.

One of us (Elena) has worked with a leader who allowed her young marketing manager to introduce beer into a wine-dominated market. The manager tried to find the right taste and packaging, and failed; but he kept trying, learning from each mistake. Finally, he found a winner. As a result of his efforts, the company has launched several highly successful brands—all thanks to a leader who gave a junior manager the freedom to try, and permission to fail.

Leaders need people who are constantly willing to try, get it wrong, and try again; a trail of attempts that don’t work can get you quickly to one that does. This was what Amy Edmondson, Novartis professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School and author of The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace,2 emphasized when we met with her to compare notes.

Do you play to win—or just not to lose?

It might seem foolhardy to take risks in the current business environment, fraught as it is with fears of COVID-19 and other global upheavals. We beg to differ. These precarious times present leaders with unique opportunities; we believe that COVID-19 has made it more important than ever to build a culture of intellectual bravery. The pandemic has exposed our vulnerabilities; for reasons outside of our control, we’ve been given permission to feel, learn, and grow. In discussion with us, Edmondson remarked, “Leaders now say, I’ve never been so free, never been more energized, because I now feel the urgency of being a leader and of guiding my organization through the crisis.”

Almost every business has taken knocks. What’s important is to learn from the short-term setbacks, and use those lessons to fortify yourself for long-term success. Edmondson refers to this as “playing to win” versus “playing not to lose.” She explains: “Playing not to lose is a fixed mindset—ultimately the behavior you adopt to make sure you look good. This is completely different, though, from actually being good. If you play to win, you really go for it; you mess up sometimes, but you understand that this is part of the learning process.”

Vulnerable leadership

But is psychological safety relevant to senior executives and CEOs? Surely leaders are under pressure always to perform, without making risky moves that may reveal their fallibility? An inner voice may challenge us here: “I can’t explore or act on questionable ideas—I have to use my time to deal decisively with my immediate problems; to focus on the bottom line, or to close this quarter strongly.” Leaders do frequently tell us that time is their major hurdle. But in reality, it is not time, but fear, that is holding us back.

According to Edmondson, the answer to people who think they don’t have the time to create a learning environment is that they don’t have time not to do it. Unless they make time now, they will need to spend their efforts dealing with issues later.

Leaders now say, I’ve never been so free, never been more energized, because I now feel the urgency of being a leader and of guiding my organization through the crisis.

Amy Edmondson, Novartis professor of leadership at Harvard Business School

No matter how urgent the situation seems, insightful leaders always have time for meaningful discussion, based on data, analysis, and inquiries. The higher you go in an organization, the more true this is. While many are still hobbled by a fear of failure or rejection, leaders on a journey of self-discovery are increasingly realizing that their vulnerability is a strength. Likewise, failure is a stepping stone to success; when we fail, some part of us is learning and growing.

For example, one of us (Ricardo) has worked with a CEO of a global firm who, when new to the job and young for his position, feared failing in the eyes of the long-established Board. He was obsessed with doing all the right things, right away. Yet he was losing ground; his performance lacked vision and inspiration. Only after he allowed himself to pause, step back, and reach out to peers at other organizations to share his challenges, did he gain the courage to step out into the void, truly inhabit his role as CEO, and reshape the culture of the company.

Another of our clients was afraid of seeming unprofessional if she revealed too much of her caring, “softer” side in her hard-driving work environment. It was only after experiencing near burnout that she was able to face this fear, and show her colleagues her more vulnerable self—the part that didn’t have to be able to “fix” everything instantly, that could confess to weakness. They responded warmly, and it was this growth experience that led her, eventually, to take up the very top position of her global corporation.

A call to action

How does one bring about this kind of transformation of the self? It’s about constantly setting the stage, inviting input, and responding authentically. Psychological safety is deeply embedded in how you treat others. Instead of dictating in black-and-white terms, psychological safety embraces inclusivity-inviting other voices into the discussion, appreciating different perspectives.

A balance of rigor and care can only be achieved by acknowledging your own emotions in a genuine way. At Egon Zehnder, we believe that self-curiosity is a powerful tool. By exploring our own fears and belief systems, we expand our self-awareness, and create safety for ourselves and for our colleagues. This is less about techniques and more about going deep within, learning to listen to yourself, and learning to heal. Before you introduce compassion into your workplace, you need to learn to be compassionate with yourself.

Confronting such highly personal questions and obstacles is tough, and can feel threatening. Deep emotional self-acceptance is hard. When you go deep, it hurts. But executives need to have the courage to open that Pandora’s box of their emotions and explore. They will find a joyous outcome.

The right support system can make the difference between the experience being inspiring or daunting. As self-discovery journeys become more accepted within leadership, finding the right coach or coaching system for you and your team is critical. We’ve closely partnered with many leading executives in their quest for self-development – learning how to discover the root cause of their emotions, to tell their stories and be heard, to believe vulnerability is strength, and to embrace their spiritual selves. This allows them to reflect deeply on how to transform themselves and the enterprise they lead, while gaining new perspectives and energy.

In our experience of coaching CEOs, the rich and fruitful path towards transforming yourself and inspiring profound changes in your team and organization can begin with a few simple questions. To get started, ask yourself:

  • When did you last share with your colleagues a failure, a mistake you made, or a lesson learned? Did others respond to you with curiosity and compassion?

  • When did they last share something similar with you?

  • Did this help you to better understand your personal responsibility, and how to improve and develop? Did you collectively think about how to do things better?

  • If you reflect on failures, do you consider them losses, or opportunities to grow?

  • What is holding you back? What are you afraid of? What are your self-limiting beliefs?

  • When you want to discuss a problem with someone, how long does it take you to decide on a confidante? To whom do you turn first?

Share these questions with your team. The answers will be revealing, and sometimes difficult to process. But if you give yourself permission to show vulnerability, the journey will be enriching, both personally and professionally, and will ultimately make your organization a better place—safer, yet also more courageous.

The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2020
2 The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth, Wiley, 2018

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