How effective leaders role model psychological safety


Leaders have a vital role to play in setting an example for others, and inspiring the team to sustain a work culture of psychological safety.
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Psychological safety is a non-negotiable part of being in a team. | Image source: Getty Images

Psychological safety is a non-negotiable part of being in a team. Creating safety takes effort and intention. It’s also everyone’s concern. While leaders must lead from the front, teams can’t be left out of the equation of creating safety at work. Though much like respect, lack of safety is often not felt until you don’t have it. Leaders have a vital role to play in setting an example for others, and inspiring the team to sustain a work culture of psychological safety.

Amy Edmondson, of the Harvard Business School, who coined the term psychological safety, defines it like this, “It’s a shared belief held by members of a team that others on the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish them for speaking up.”

Research clearly points to significant human and business benefits of safety at work. Google, in a widely cited internal research, found psychological safety to be a key driver of their high performing teams. More recent research bolsters this claim.

It is the people you spend the most time with at work that you want to feel safe around. It’s also your responsibility to help others feel safe and respected. Yet, teams find themselves in situations where talented people have to spend time protecting and defending themselves. That time could have been used more gainfully in sharing ideas and solving problems.

Consider a situation when you might have committed a mistake that cost the team. Maybe, it resulted in redoing a task or in customer criticism. Errors at work can make anyone feel vulnerable and spotlighted. It’s in this context that psychological safety becomes paramount. No one wants to be fixed at work, but with support everyone can fix mistakes and move on.

Here are four effective ways for leaders to demonstrate and role model psychological safety for their teams.   

Protect the baseline for team culture

As wisely said, a team’s culture settles to the level of the worst behaviour a leader is ready to overlook. When leaders don’t intervene in a timely way to address damaging and disrespectful behaviours, it’s a signal that bad behaviour is acceptable. This gives rise to more such incidents until a team turns into a contentious and unsafe place to be. Leaders can interrupt this cycle by effectively and courageously managing poor behaviour. This helps to highlight preferred behaviours and turn down ones that diminish respect and safety at work. This includes not blaming and shaming people for what they did, but coaching and reinforcing workplace expectations. This helps teams to preserve interpersonal boundaries that promote mutual safety at work.

Care more for people than the results

Lack of safety often shows up when results get missed or mistakes happen at work. The easiest thing for leaders to do is to fix people and care for results. Blaming the team breeds distrust, fear, and the anxiety of being caught doing the wrong thing. When leaders fall for quick fixes, lack of psychological safety becomes a cultural norm. Instead, supporting the team, learning actively, and getting it right the next time encourages confidence. Teams become emotionally resilient and accountable for mistakes when they know they are all on same side of the table. This accelerates improvements, reveals hidden risks, and promotes more creative problem solving.  

Demonstrate respect in disagreements

Work pressures and disagreements raise the possibility of impatience and disrespect. Teams keenly watch their leaders when things don’t go to plan. In a research on leadership traits, 20,000 respondents ranked respect at the top of their list. People who said leaders treated them with respect were also 55% more engaged. One of the best ways for leaders to grow respect is to demonstrate it. Leaders can set an example by staying respectful in disagreements through deeply listening and not jumping to conclusions. Most employees don’t demand agreement. Instead, they value being heard, respected, and acknowledged, so they know they can trust their leader’s communication. This encourages mutual respect and psychological safety at work.

Use feedback as an improvement tool

One of the most misunderstood and misused communication tools at work continues to be giving and receiving feedback. When treated as a way to share one’s displeasure or punish a team, feedback turns toxic and something to be feared. Leaders can instil psychological safety in teams by first seeking feedback on their leadership and normalising it. When feedback is used as a tool for development, open communication, and ongoing improvement then teams welcome it, and even ask for it proactively. It inspires everyone to take interpersonal risks knowing they will not be penalised or rejected for doing so. In fact, speaking fairly and candidly becomes a strength for the team, and something to aspire to.

Sonali D’silva is a Certified Professional in Inclusive Leadership from Catalyst Inc. She is the Founder of Equality Consulting, a training and advisory service for raising diversity awareness, leading with inclusion, and creating psychological safety at work. Find out more about Sonali at