Leadership today needs a lot of psychological safety

 In Change management, Coaching, Culture, Leadership

When you think of something criminal happening in a film based in New York – a crook being shot or a deal taking place, for example – where is it? Did you just think ‘Down a dark alley’? You’re not alone – the hosts of the ‘99% Invisible’ podcast suggest that this is the answer most people give to this question. But here’s the surprising thing. Because New York was built on a grid system, it hardly has any alleys. In fact, there are only about 12. And it’s pretty much always the same one used over and over again in films (listen to the podcast for more – it’s really interesting). So why do we all believe New York has alleys? Because that’s the mental model the movies have created. And because our reality is constructed by the way we think we should think.

The appearance of truth

My husband works in film and he’s recently taught me a new word that applies here – verisimilitude. It means that something, as an assertion, merely has the appearance of truth. Film directors create narratives that fit with audiences’ views of reality. And that’s what alleys in New York are – they have the appearance of truth to the audience. So that’s why directors put them in NY films. They seem credible and they’re what the audience expects.

This applies outside the world of film as well. In everything we do we have our own version of the world around us – our own interpretation and beliefs about how it works. And this has an awful lot of unconscious biases and social pressures thrown in. About 90% of the world around us is a construction.

Changing the way we look at leadership

Leadership is also a construction – one we’ve formed from our experiences in the workplace over many years. But the world’s changed so much in the last ten years that now we need to unpick a lot of those established mental assumptions. And it’s important to recognise that unpicking beliefs, assumptions and well-established mental models is work in itself. This is an important thing that many people ignore, without even realising it.

It’s vital to remember to reset this mental model of leadership – where the person in charge always knows best. The bad old days of damaging your career by questioning the leader are long gone. Now no-one has all the answers. And expecting leaders to come up with these is expecting the wrong thing from them – it reflects the old, auto-pilot way of looking at leadership.

New leadership

Today’s leaders may not be expected to have all the answers. But they do need to build diverse teams and the right environment to work out the solutions. And to enhance these with the benefits diversity of thought can bring.

Here’s a list of people skills I believe we need to nurture in the leaders of the modern age.

1. The ability to build teams
Growth today is driven by ideas, creativity and innovation. And teams are what bring those features out. But building a good team is about more than just talent. Today’s leaders need to create psychological safety within teams to bring about the right conditions for learning, innovation and growth.

What do I mean by ‘psychological safety’? Put simply, a work environment that’s different to the old mantra of ‘what does the boss think?’ – one that moves away from a fear of speaking up and challenges the ‘groupthink’. Leaders should want their teams to tell them what to think.

To realise the power of a diverse team leaders need to create a space where people feel safe to contribute their ideas, to speak up no matter what level they are. They also need to feel 100% safe doing that – no blame, shame or fear of losing face. This is what elevates teams and gives them superpowers.

2. An understanding of diversity to allow differences to show

Psychological safety also encourages diversity. It’s not enough to just hire a diverse team of smart people – you need to allow that diversity to be seen and expressed. That means letting everyone be themselves, and stepping away from the organisational model of being.

All teams have a set way of doing things – it’s inevitable. It’s generally not written down, but it’s an understood way of working. Often you can see it in the way people dress. Teams tend to emulate each other by all wearing suits, or all wearing jeans etc. There’s nothing sinister about this – in fact social rules like this help us make sense of the world – but it can restrict diverse teams. That’s because the members will naturally conform to a non-diverse, standard model. Here are some examples:

  • the mum who comes to work and never mentions her kids or that she needs to sort childcare
  • the young person who doesn’t speak up when they don’t understand something
  • the gay person who tries to not hang out with other gay people in case they’re seen as ‘different’

To realise the benefits of diverse thought, you have to foster an environment of truly inclusive leadership, that allows diversity to flow so everyone can be themselves. (Deloitte’s research on inclusive leadership is an excellent read on this.)

3. The skill to build a culture that can handle candour

Today’s leaders must be willing to drive fear out of their organisation. As individuals we put a lot of energy into avoiding looking ignorant, incompetent or disruptive. It’s natural to want to look smart, capable and helpful. But psychological safety isn’t about being nice – it’s about being completely candid. And being able to engage in productive conflict without feeling personally at risk, to learn from different points of view.

I’m not saying this is easy. There’s a lot of psychology involved as we all want to project a positive self-image to others. Great leaders introduce practices to help with this. They put in place safe processes for feedback, creativity, experimentation and ideas that equip people with the tools they need to talk to each other safely with candour. Candour that allows people to work to boundaries, while also giving permission for open conversation.

A note of caution though. It can be an easy mistake to adopt free and unregulated team practices in a desire to be seen as a great leader. But this makes it tough to promote diversity. What often happens is one group-identity prevails and everyone conforms to it. This is fine if your business needs one team identity. But if you want to benefit from diversity, putting in place some form of process can actually allow everyone to show up as themselves without fear of breaking the group norm.

Take Pixar’s BrainTrust as an example. Every few months a team of qualified minds from across the company review a Pixar film. They watch it together, have lunch and then discuss it. They’re noisy and very, very candid. But there’s a process and there are rules. The team have come together to make the film better – this isn’t about ego or point scoring. Criticism is always constructive. And while ideas and feedback are put forward, the film’s director actually doesn’t have to accept any of it. They own the film and have permission to decide what to take on board. Whether they do or not, the feedback group makes them smarter – they get new perspectives and viewpoints than they couldn’t alone.

When contained within a clear process like this, candour is powerful. And it can only make things better.

4. The ability to be a humble role model

Although I’m saying that leaders don’t have to have all the answers any more, they do still need to set behavioural standards and culture. Psychological safety changes from team to team, and leaders have a huge influence on this. Giving people the space and permission to speak up is just the first step. The true test is how leaders respond when people actually do that, especially when they speak up and it doesn’t work. So there are a number of things leaders should do here.

  • Set the stage: Give your people permission to think and do things differently. Help them get in touch with the difference they make and why they’re important.
  • Be humble and curious: No-one wants to take the risk of proposing ideas when the boss appears to think they know everything.
  • Have empathy: If a leader responds with anger when people try something new – especially if it doesn’t work – any safety will evaporate.
  • Listen: You can’t just tick the boxes. A team leader who runs a team-building event but isn’t interested in ongoing conversations is missing the part that makes the difference.
  • Be authentic: To allow diversity to flourish, you need to be genuine, authentic and available. Show who you are, vulnerabilities and all.


How we can help

Real change happens when you shift mindsets, attitudes and behaviours. So for business transformation to work, you need to make an effort at a psychological level.

Many employees and leaders learnt about work in a different era, which meant they needed different skills. But things are changing quickly – the skills we expect today are wildly different to the ones we celebrated five years ago. Making Change Happen help employees learn these new ways of being. And feel comfortable with the change.

If you’d like to have a conversation about how we can help create the psychological safety that lets people grow and develop in your organisation then please get in touch by emailing us at talk@MakingChangeHappen.co.uk.


Recommended Posts