What happens when a manager doesn't exhibit the behaviours required to foster an effective environment of Psychological Safety?

There are numerous posts and discussion articles on the importance of Psychological Safety already out there. In this article, I instead wanted focus solely on the role a manager can play in this complex dance.

We also won't delve into the benefits of a psychologically safe workplace in this article - the evidence all points to psychologically safe teams being higher performing, generating better business and customer outcomes, being easier to retain and attract talent, being more collaborative, engaged, creative... the list goes on.

Let's talk about money

We cannot start to talk about Psychological Safety without first delving into that uncomfortable topic of salary and compensation. Although not strictly linked to Psychological Safety, it's worth pointing out that if your employees are not paid fairly for the work they do, you are never going to maximise the outcomes. As Daniel Pink highlights in Drive, people must be intrinsically motivated to do the work. If you are not paying enough so that people can just show up and do their best work, go fix that first... I'll wait.

Managers vs. Leaders

We won't get bogged down in this, but for the purposes of this article, we are focussed on 'people in charge of people' - that is, 'managers', 'senior managers', etc. Feel free to use the term manager or leader interchangeably here, but ultimately I am focussed on those with people in their care.

The Role of Managers in Psychological Safety

In all of the work I have done with teams and in looking at the research, the difference between those who do well with Psychological Safety and those who don't is tightly coupled to 'effective management'. As Amy Edmondson highlights, Psychological Safety is a group level construct - that is, you do not need to be part of a psychologically safe organisation in order to have a team that behaves and acts as if psychologically safe. One of the key differentiators at a team level though is the manager.

“The most important influence on Psychological Safety is the nearest manager, supervisor, or boss.” (Edmondson, 2012).

Psychological Safety is very much a 'we' problem - each of us has to be willing to take those steps into interpersonal risk in order to create an environment where we can demonstrate the behaviours needed for Psychological Safety.

The manager of any team plays a hugely outsized role in this though, and this article focuses on the behaviours that can maximise and amplify a teams ability to become psychologically safe.

It is worth calling out, in your role as a manager your value add for your company has moved from direct (as you did as an individual contributor) to indirect. It's about creating environments, multiplying, supporting, challenging and growing your teams, and maximising context for them so that they can do their best work.

Firstly, this isn't about being 'nice'

The highest performing teams exhibit distinct properties - whether you are looking at the definitions from Amy Edmondson (high psychological safety, high accountability), or others in the field such as Timothy Clark (inclusion, learner, contributor and challenger safety), Psychological Safety without some form of high accountability/challenge will leave employees wanting, and is not maximising on returns for your organisation - it is literally leaving money on the table.

For newly formed teams teams, or those starting from nothing, there is no downside in starting with those behaviours that build trust from you as manager. But be careful to set a model of candor, feedback, challenge and curiosity alongside it to foster those behaviours that will ultimately lead the teams to perform at their best.

Your Culture is Your Behaviours

When we talk of Psychological Safety, ultimately what we are talking about is the underpinnings of our team culture. Let's look at the questions aimed at measuring Psychological Safety in Amy Edmondson's paper "Psychological Safety and Learning Behaviour in Work Teams":

  1. If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.
  2. Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
  3. People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.
  4. It is safe to take a risk on this team.
  5. It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
  6. No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
  7. Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.

We can all picture the teams we have worked in in the past where this wasn't an easy survey to answer positively. We weren't at our best, we probably weren't raising concerns, we weren't asking for help, we probably had some degree of fear, and we certainly weren't 'bringing our whole selves' to work.

Most of these questions are directly and heavily impacted by, and start with manager behaviours.

"The culture of any organisation is shaped by the worst behaviour the leader is willing to tolerate" (Gruenter & Whitaker, 2015).

For "tolerate" here, we could also replace with the word "create" when considering manager behaviours. If staff are shouted at, if disrespect is happening in the team, if under performance is going unchecked, or concerning practice going unchallenged - then your organisational values and expectations are merely motivational slogans on the wall - your culture is not those artifacts, but the witnessed behaviours you see.

Dr Ron Westrum looked at the human factors in system safety, and typified three distinct organisational cultures:

Power orientedRule orientedPerformance oriented
Low cooperationModest cooperationHigh cooperation
Messengers "shot"Messengers neglectedMessengers trained
Responsibilities shirkedNarrow responsibilitiesRisks are shared
Bridging discouragedBridging toleratedBridging encouraged
Failure leads to scapegoatingFailure leads to justiceFailure leads to inquiry
Novelty crushedNovelty leads to problemsNovelty implemented

It will come as no surprise to see behaviours in each that are hugely amplified and defined by managers.

Where should a manager start?

I've written a little in the past on manager behaviours, and we can do a lot worse than starting with some of the basics. Starting with, and defaulting to Servant Leadership will take you on the right path here. As a manager, if you create the right environment, you do not need to be in control of everything, nor on top of everything. Your team will have a measure of autonomy and authority, and will exhibit those behaviours in support of the team goals.

Assuming you have solved for the needs to intrinsically motivate people (Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose), then taking a participative, collaborative 'Theory Y' approach to people is also a superb foundation.

Even smart people need the right manager and the right environment

Google's Project Oxygen in 2008 highlighted a number of skills that were pivotal to effective management, and Project Aristotle extended these to look at what made an effective team. Psychological Safety of course featured heavily, but as did many of the behaviours inherent in Servant Leadership and Theory Y mindset.

Modelling Behaviours

As a manager, it's easy to fall into a pattern where our behaviours don't match those that we ideally wish to exhibit with our teams. Below is a checklist of those that will help us get closer to an environment of Psychological Safety, and those that will take us further from it.

Good Manager BehavioursBad Manager Behaviours
Humble, CuriousAssured, Indifferent
ListenTell don't Ask
Servant LeadershipCommand and Control
EgalitarianPositional Power, Hierarchy
Defaulting to TrustDoubt, Mistrust
Devolving AuthorityMicro-management
Seek and Give Active FeedbackFeedback Bombs, Silence
Empathy, Emotional IntelligenceAmygdala, Reaction, Narcisism
Transparent, ClearGuarded, Ambiguous
Giving CreditTaking Credit

What are the impacts in not modelling the right behaviours as a manager?

In most of our working environments, we live in a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) world. We haven't been here before. The things we are facing are not execution problems, they are situations where we need every voice, every brain, and all contributing to success. We must create learning organisations for our teams, where it is safe to learn, and behaviours are reinforced and amplified by leaders.

Power is changing in the workplace

We are no longer in the same organisational structures or models that worked twenty years ago. Workers are expecting more from the workplace and their lives.

"As new power models become integrated into the daily lives of people and the operating systems of communities and societies, a new set of values and beliefs is being forged. Power is not just flowing differently; people are feeling and thinking differently about it. A teenager with her own YouTube channel engages as a content creator rather than as a passive recipient of someone else’s ideas."

But what about failure and risk? They're bad, right?

As with Amy's study on Psychological Safety within hospitals, even teams in operating theatres can feel safe to take risk and to 'fail', as they do so professionally and safety because of the environment that is nurtured. When a manager amplifies the safety in speaking up, raising concerns, challenging authority, and bringing all voices to the table, then we are actually mitigating and minimising the impact from risk and failure.

Consider the alternative, where voices are afraid to speak up, to challenge, or to highlight issues - where "impression management" is the primary concern of those in the team. The team may well take less risk, but at what cost? Often, innovation is the first casualty of a team unwilling to talk about and evaluate risk together. They will fail less though? This doesn't seem to be the case, they will just do so without the support of their peers that could have helped them avoid that outcome.

Psychological Safety is fragile - how will you amplify it?

As managers, we do not have all of the answers. We don't always do the right thing. We certainly couldn't do all of the work our teams do if they are disengaged.

As a manager, you are never 'done' with Psychological Safety and those day to day, amplifying behaviours become even more important. If our teams fail to speak up in the workplace, we cannot see or challenge that, and silence will only sometimes mean agreement.

What opportunities are you missing out on if you don't hear every question, every concern, every dissenting voice?

It is on all managers to go first, and create those environments to help people be their best, and to help workplaces amplify their purpose.