Psychological safety and the critical role of leadership development

Here is an excerpt from an article that shares the results of a major global study of psychological safety and the critical role of leadership development. It was featured in the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out others, learn more about the firm, and sign up for email alerts, please click here.

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While the benefits of psychological safety are well established, a new survey suggests how leaders, by developing specific skills, can create a safer and higher-performance work environment.
When employees feel comfortable asking for help, sharing suggestions informally, or challenging the status quo without fear of negative social consequences, organizations are more likely to innovate quickly, unlock the benefits of diversity, and adapt well to change—all capabilities that have only grown in importance during the COVID-19 crisis.  
Yet a McKinsey Global Survey conducted during the pandemic confirms that only a handful of business leaders often demonstrate the positive behaviors that can instill this climate, termed psychological safety, in their workforce.  As considerable prior research shows, psychological safety is a precursor to adaptive, innovative performance — which is needed in today’s rapidly changing environment—at the individual, team, and organization levels.For example, successfully creating a “network of teams”—an agile organizational structure that empowers teams to tackle problems quickly by operating outside of bureaucratic or siloed structures—requires a strong degree of psychological safety.
Fortunately, our newest research suggests how organizations can foster psychological safety. Doing so depends on leaders at all levels learning and demonstrating specific leadership behaviors that help their employees thrive. Investing in and scaling up leadership-development programs can equip leaders to embody these behaviors and consequently cultivate psychological safety across the organization.

A recipe for leadership that promotes psychological safety

Leaders can build psychological safety by creating the right climate, mindsets, and behaviors within their teams. In our experience, those who do this best act as catalysts, empowering and enabling other leaders on the team—even those with no formal authority—to help cultivate psychological safety by role modeling and reinforcing the behaviors they expect from the rest of the team.

Our research finds that a positive team climate—in which team members value one another’s contributions, care about one another’s well-being, and have input into how the team carries out its work—is the most important driver of a team’s psychological safety.  By setting the tone for the team climate through their own actions, team leaders have the strongest influence on a team’s psychological safety. Moreover, creating a positive team climate can pay additional dividends during a time of disruption. Our research finds that a positive team climate has a stronger effect on psychological safety in teams that experienced a greater degree of change in working remotely than in those that experienced less change during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet just 43 percent of all respondents report a positive climate within their team.

Positive team climate is the most important driver of psychological safety and most likely to occur when leaders demonstrate supportive, consultative behaviors, then begin to challenge their teams.

During the pandemic, we have seen an accelerated shift away from the traditional command-and-control leadership style known as authoritative leadership, one of the four well-established styles of leadership behavior we examined to understand which ones encourage a positive team climate and psychological safety. The survey finds that team leaders’ authoritative-leadership behaviors are detrimental to psychological safety, while consultative- and supportive-leadership behaviors promote psychological safety.

The results also suggest that leaders can further enhance psychological safety by ensuring a positive team climate (See Exhibit 1). Both consultative and supportive leadership help create a positive team climate, though to varying degrees and through different types of behaviors.

With consultative leadership, which has a direct and indirect effect on psychological safety, leaders consult their team members, solicit input, and consider the team’s views on issues that affect them.  Supportive leadership has an indirect but still significant effect on psychological safety by helping to create a positive team climate; it involves leaders demonstrating concern and support for team members not only as employees but also as individuals. These behaviors also can encourage team members to support one another.

Another set of leadership behaviors can sometimes strengthen psychological safety—but only when a positive team climate is in place. This set of behaviors, known as challenging leadership, encourages employees to do more than they initially think they can. A challenging leader asks team members to reexamine assumptions about their work and how it can be performed in order to exceed expectations and fulfill their potential. Challenging leadership has previously been linked with employees expressing creativity, feeling empowered to make work-related changes, and seeking to learn and improve.  However, the survey findings show that the highest likelihood of psychological safety occurs when a team leader first creates a positive team climate, through frequent supportive and consultative actions, and then challenges their team; without a foundation of positive climate, challenging behaviors have no significant effect. And employees’ experiences look very different depending on how their leaders behave, according to Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School (interactive).

What’s more, the survey results show that a climate conducive to psychological safety starts at the very top of an organization. We sought to understand the effects of senior-leader behavior on employees’ sense of safety and found that senior leaders can help create a culture of inclusiveness that promotes positive leadership behaviors throughout an organization by role-modeling these behaviors themselves. Team leaders are more likely to exhibit supportive, consultative, and challenging leadership if senior leaders demonstrate inclusiveness—for example, by seeking out opinions that might differ from their own and by treating others with respect.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

The contributors to the development and analysis of this survey include Aaron De Smet, a senior partner in McKinsey’s New Jersey office; Kim Rubenstein, a research-science specialist in the New York office; Gunnar Schrah, a director of research science in the Denver office; Mike Vierow, an associate partner in the Brisbane office; and Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School.

This article was edited by Heather Hanselman, an associate editor in the Atlanta office.


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