Leaders Create Psychological Safety_3x5 Leadership

A few years ago, Google studied to determine the keys to successful teams. Through their research, they found that the #1 key to the highest-performing teams was psychological safety within the team. This means that team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other, without feeling insecure or embarrassed.

High psychological safety across the team provides a number of key benefits such as:

  • It encourages members to speak up with ideas, professional dissent, and necessary questions.
  • It enables a culture of feedback and accountability within the team – up, down, and across.
  • Fosters higher levels of innovation, especially from more junior members.

But leaders can’t just create this safety out of thin air, nor can they demand it from their team. We can’t merely tell our teammates, “I want you to feel safe here” if our actions communicate otherwise.

Leaders must build a sense of psychological safety for their team. This is done through deliberate, consistent behavior over time. Here are a few ways that we can start practicing it more now: by using inclusive language, making vulnerability OK for them and for us, trusting first, and enacting our leader love languages.

Use Inclusive Language

Consider these two different approaches of a leader providing hard, constructive feedback to one of their teammates:

  • “Joe, that comment you made in the meeting earlier today was inappropriate. You spoke over Sam, cutting him off, and it completely invalidated him in front of everyone else. It was not professional or kind, and it halted the productivity of the rest of the meeting by creating an awkward tone across the team.”
  • “Joe, I don’t think the comment we made in the meeting earlier today landed the way we intended. It seemed to shut down Sam and set an uncomfortable tone across the team for the rest of the meeting. What was our thought process on why and how we made that comment?”

What do you see as the difference between these two ways to provide feedback? I am not arguing that the first statement is bad; it’s actually high-quality feedback to show Joe the impact of his actions. I would argue, though, that the first statement is pretty aggressive. It sets a “you (Joe) vs. us (Sam, the team, and me)” tone, alienating Joe from the team and from me.

Notice the different use of pronouns in the two statements, as well. Statement #1 used “you” while statement #2 leveraged more inclusive ones like “we” and “our.” This second statement subtly communicates to Joe that although I am giving him constructive feedback, I am still committed to him, value him, and intend to join him on exploring how we can improve our behavior for the future. It encourages Joe to be more receptive to the feedback and be more personally committed to improving. It also makes it more inclusive by creating an opportunity for a back-and-forth dialog about the behavior by asking an open-ended question.

Small changes in our language to make it more inclusive can have major impacts on creating psychological safety with our people. I encourage you to continue thinking on other ways that you can leverage more inclusive language to make everyone on the team feel safer. You can read the piece, Words Matter – The Importance of Our Language as Leaders, for more ideas and examples.

Make Vulnerability OK for Them and for You

Leader vulnerability is likely the most sensitive behavior on this list. It’s challenging because it touches these hard-to-acknowledge ideas of imperfection, inadequacy, and even shame. But it is also probably the most impactful mechanism on this list to cultivate psychological safety on the team. Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly and Dare to Lead, is my go-to expert on leadership and vulnerability; she argues that these two things go hand-in-hand. Both deal in uncertainty, risk, exposure, and discomfort. While leaders can be overly-vulnerable, letting it “all hang out” without boundaries, I believe most of us struggle in opposite extreme: demonstrating confident vulnerability to others. Here are a few ways that we can practice healthy vulnerability with our people to build psychological safety:

  • Be able to say “I don’t know”: As leaders, I know many of us feel the pressure to know all and be all to all people. It’s just not possible, especially now in the complexities of the 21st century. It is impossible for leaders to be the central hub for information, knowledge, and decision-making. Leaders can demonstrate vulnerability, and encourage team collaboration and innovation, by simply saying “I don’t know, what do you think?” David Marquet, author of Turn the Ship Around!, does a great job talking about this in his new book, Leadership is Language.
  • Demonstrate patience & forgiveness: I strive to only get mad on purpose as a leader, never allowing my emotions to overwhelm my thinking or behavior. That includes how I respond to failure or mistakes from my people. When feasible (i.e. not a drastic crisis environment), I aim to not become upset with others and create the time, space, and focus to allow them to learn from their experience and attempt to fix it for the future. Having this kind of developmental long-view as a leader gives your people permission to own their performance, commit to improving, and knowing they are still valued on the team.
  • Be wholly self-aware: Improved self-awareness directly leads to improved leader effectiveness. But this requires us to be aware of and actually own our shortcomings. Do our attitudes, words, and behaviors demonstrate ownership of our shortcomings as leaders or do we work to hide them due to shame? Self-awareness only works if we know what we struggle with and use that knowledge to adjust our personal or the team’s behavior to compensate for that weakness.
  • Celebrate vulnerability in others: Last year, I observed an academic course on leader development that a personal mentor was teaching to a number of senior Non-Commissioned Officers. The specific lesson was addressing a model of adult learning. One NCO student shared a personal story as an example about the challenges of helping his teenage stepson with math homework. That NCO was extremely vulnerable in the moment through the intimacy of the issue he shared. My mentor, in response to the NCO’s comments, stated, “Mike, thanks for sharing. I appreciate it. And thanks for loving your stepson.” That last comment blew me away. In just a few, simple, nonchalant words, my mentor celebrated and expressed genuine appreciation for that NCO’s willingness to be vulnerable – and he did it in such a professional way. I strive to celebrate vulnerability with others in that way every day.
  • Think WAIT – Why Am I Talking?: Am I talking to compensate for personal insecurities and to demonstrate mastery of the topic or issue to others? Am I taking up all of the leadership “space” within the team, preventing others from doing so? Sometimes, talking less is a mechanism for being vulnerable as a leader and allowing others to step up.

You can learn more about leadership and vulnerability through Brené Brown’s work to include her books Daring Greatly and Dare to Lead, any of her numerous TED and TEDx videos on YouTube, and her new “Unlocking Us” podcast show.

Trust First

Psychological safety must predicate our people’s trust; they will not offer their trust to us and the team if they don’t feel safe. This is important because trust is the currency of leadership. I would never ask anyone on my team to do something I’m not willing to do myself…and that includes giving my trust. One necessary way to earn our peoples’ trust and to build safety within the team is by first placing your trust in them.

Trust is one of those areas of risk that leadership deals in. There is risk in stepping out in faith and wholly trusting your people with responsibility and authority. But trust must be prudent risk. It is not given blindly. As a leader, I give my trust through a sequential process of: training my people, certifying them, empowering them, and then finally trusting them. The process looks like this:

  • Train: Educate your people on a skill, topic, or area of responsibility. Teach them and then train them through repetition.
  • Certify: While training is “me telling you,” certifying is “you telling me.” It is a method of testing and validating our people on the designated skill, topic, or area.
  • Empower: To make trust genuine, people must have the legitimate authority to match their responsibility. Push information, authority, and decision-making down. Let them own it.
  • Trust: Finally, with being trained, certified, and fully empowered, my people have my full faith and confidence.

The concept of leaders ‘trusting but verifying’ is a sensitive one that clouds the concept of trust and empowerment. Many may see that still as micromanaging. I think David Marquet speaks to that well in his book, Leadership is Language, “Because trust means ‘I trust you are trying to make the right decision,’ it is OK (and appropriate) to then follow up with ‘Now take me through your thinking on this decision.’ Because the decision itself has been separated from the emotional heaviness of trust, the discussion happens more freely.”

But ultimately, never expect others to trust you as a leader if you can’t or won’t first place your trust in them.

Use Your Leader Love Languages

I believe leadership and love are synonymous. Leadership is a people business and we must genuinely care for and be invested in others. To make our people feel safe, I think it starts with love.

So how do we as leaders express our love for our people in genuine and appropriate ways? I like adapting the model of Gary Chapman’s The 5 Love Languages. While Chapman’s model and book focus on how partners prefer to express and receive love in intimate relationships, I think leaders can easily adapt this concept and it’s five languages for expressing love for their people:

  • Words of affirmation: Appreciating your peoples’ efforts is different than showing appreciation for it. Leaders expressing gratitude and appreciation go a long way to build their teams, but only if its that…expressed. Ensure you routinely recognize your people for things that should be rewarded, big and small. Even small gestures like a personal comment or thank you, or a hand-written note can go a long way. Words of affirmation (or “whoa-a” as my wife and I pronounce it; WoA is both of our primary love languages) should not be novel, either. Work to build it as a habit in your routine leader behavior.
  • Quality time: I tend to bucket leaders’ excuses for not investing in the deliberate development of their people and other leaders into two categories: they are either afraid to or they are too busy too. Regarding the second, time is absolutely a valuable resource for leaders, but again, leadership is a people business. If you’re not in the game of building other leaders, I challenge your priorities as a leader. Ensure that you leverage portions of you time to pour into your people. This can be through mentorship, coaching, counseling, or other forms of developmental communication.
  • Gift-giving: Professional gifts can be tangible ways to demonstrate “I was thinking about you” and can be used to represent the time your people spent in service of an effort together with you. While plaques and desktop decorations are often popular options, not all leadership gift-giving has to be so extravagant. Some of my favorite gifts I’ve received include mugs or stickers from past colleagues that celebrate memorable aspects of our relationship. Military command teams often use challenge coins as a method or even more temporary gestures like giving away designated parking spaces in recognition (though having designated parking spaces for leaders in the first place is another topic for discussion).
  • Acts of service: Leaders are never above any task conducted within the team. As stated earlier, leaders should never ask their people to do something that they would not do themselves. When time and opportunity allow, take advantage of the chance to “roll your sleeves up and get dirty” with your people. For military leaders, this can look like taking over middle-of-the-night guard shifts, radio shifts, or even staff duty shifts. Moreover, be willing to do something for the benefit of one of your people, though it may not bring any benefit to your team or organization. This can include things like writing letters of recommendations if they choose to attend school or a different career later, providing them with a helpful networking contact, or helping out with a personal favor even if beyond the scope of your professional relationship (helping a colleague pack and move or bringing a meal to them if they are in a challenging time). I go back to Max de Pree’s quote, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.”
  • Physical touch: I think leaders can use physical touch within professional, appropriate boundaries to express love for their people, and this is a big leader love language for me personally. Leader physical touch can include things like handshakes, fist-bumps, pats on the shoulder or back, or even hugs. While considerations on gender, rank structure, environment, and setting are necessary, I see leaders being able to use small physical gestures to make their people feel safe and welcome in the moment. Ensure these gestures are authentic and natural to you; having these seem forced or fake can actually do more harm for the relationship in the moment.

Other Resources on Psychological Safety

For those interested in learning more about the concept of psychological safety, below are a few resources that have benefited me in my continued exploration of this topic:


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4 Comments

  1. I think it is important to note that when discussing effective leadership language, specifically the Joe and Sam example, that in situation like this, you, as the leader, are enacting a technique or better yet a skill. And that skill requires maintenance and practice to become a better more effective communicator/leader.

    In the second dialogue, I think it is interesting how the ‘leaders’ response included a question that will help both Joe and the ‘leader’ acquire information and learn, but does not attack Joe’s ego and make him defensive. This is something that I have been trying to incorporate. It requires complete awareness of word choice and of course, practice! A great book discussing how to ask questions as a leader is “Humble Inquiry” by Edgar Schein.

    This was a good read, Sir. Thanks!

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