Autocratic leadership is outdated. With the 1970s rise of freelance and contract workforce concurrent with the demise of employee pensions, individuals had fewer compelling reasons to spend 40 years at one company. What emerged from the shifting workforce landscape was the necessity to lead by example, motivate, and create compelling reasons (beyond pay and benefits) to retain talented team members. This illuminated the need for organizational psychology, which resulted in the 1990s zeitgeist of leading by example. The societal and cultural shift of the past two decades demands continued adaptation of what good leadership looks like.
Organizational psychology and cognitive science have taught us that the modern-day right stuff of leadership is a stronger appreciation of what is outdatedly referred to as “soft skills” but ought to be known as “essential skills.” Empathy, emotional intelligence, and inclusive language are frequently spotlighted, but here are three other fundamental leadership essential skills worth understanding.
Psychological safety is a team culture where individuals feel comfortable asking questions, learning from failure, admitting mistakes, and sharing ideas. It is trust on a large scale, and its defining feature is that it is a team dynamic in which individuals feel valued and respected even when vocalizing dissenting opinions.
Culture is a shared system of beliefs, values, and norms that are so integral to the group that they’re often taken for granted beyond the day-to-day awareness of the group. Therefore, psychological safety cannot be a singular task to accomplish occasionally. It must be operationalized and woven into day-to-day practice until it becomes inseparable from the organizational culture.
When we do not feel psychologically safe, our brain shifts from critical and logical processing mode to self-defense, protection mode. When an individual senses danger (real or perceived—physical or emotional), part of the brain triggers a fight, flight, or freeze response as a mechanism for self-survival. When this occurs, our cognitive functioning is impaired and our attention shifts from pro-safety team behavior to one of defensive self-protection. Over time, low psychological safety also affects us physiologically through stress and fatigue.
The incidents that go unreported, the disgruntled employee that overlooks protocols, the subtle noncompliance, and the costly employee burnout all lead to a reduction in safety through a deterioration of safety culture and a loss of productivity that negatively impacts the mission.
Overcoming Common Biases
Because of confirmation bias, our brain is constantly scanning for evidence to support our current belief paradigm. Our brain wants to find pieces of evidence that support our pre-existing model and reject information that doesn’t fit the prototype. Essentially, confirmation bias creates our own personalized virtual reality allowing us to see events, people, and interactions through our individualized filters. Normally, this system works great and allows us to make many millions of simple, small decisions we encounter throughout the day. However, these filters can sometimes deceive us from the actual reality of the situation, creating a trap of interpreting benign behaviors of others as a threat, or in other words, a cognitive disconnect. Our brains are lazy, so it’s easier to say that the other person is wrong or bad than to challenge our confirmation bias, but we must recognize our limitations. We must approach conflict with empathy and curiosity. This cannot be done without psychological safety; it is key to creating a learning environment and challenging our assumptions.
Neuroscience research tells us that we use distinct parts of our brain when we think about people we perceive as “in-group” versus “out-group.” This out-group bias prompts us to unconsciously favor those we perceive as in-group members. When a leader exhibits this in-group favoritism or out-group bias, other team members may feel threatened by the preferential treatment. This leadership behavior may be viewed as a threat by an individual who feels they are being treated as an out-group member. This threat starts the cycle of deteriorating psychological safety, which will negatively impact the whole team. One solution to navigating in-group favoritism or out-group bias is to expose individuals to members of the relative out-group. Exposure can be as elaborate as collaborative outings or as simple as causal coffee chats; the key is to ensure that it’s inclusive. Exposure decreases the negative impact of the bias and circumvents triggering a threat response.
Groupthink bias encourages individuals to “go with the flow” to promote harmony or to “keep the peace.” This requires that individuals put aside their individuality or individual ideas for team cohesion. While this may seem pleasant from an outside perspective, it leads to irrational and poor decision-making. Team cohesion can be an indicator for a team with low psychological safety.
Psychological safety is necessary to ensure team members feel comfortable sharing ideas without fear of negative consequences, such as embarrassment or retaliation. It means that team members feel comfortable speaking up with their original thoughts even when they fall outside of the groupthink model. To navigate an individual’s groupthink bias, be sure to foster an environment that not only accepts but encourages dissenting views.
Communication is a two-way interaction. From its Latin derivation, communicare (verb) and communicatio (noun), it means to make something common through sharing. If the audience to whom you are speaking does not understand what you are saying, by definition, you are not communicating as there is no shared common understanding.
Most communication is conveyed in a non-verbal manner. When the recipient of the communication feels conflicted between a mismatched verbal and non-verbal message by the conveyer, most individuals tend to believe the non-verbal communication. We have all heard the popular adage words matter; so does how you say them.
Communication agility is a leadership trait that requires one to first understand their own style of communication and to reckon with the reality that all communication is received and transmitted through individual filters: experiences, beliefs, and biases. Secondly, communication agility requires one to adapt their style to meet the recipient’s communication style. Lastly, for it to be communication, one must ensure the act of communicating resulted in a shared understanding; that the idea became common between the communicators.
Leaders Versus Managers
The title “manager” is not synonymous with “leader.” There are many managers that are all too fond of the outdated autocratic style of leadership. Watch out for organizations with low safety reporting and high levels of team cohesiveness as those tend to indicate organizational cultures with poor psychological safety. When employees feel silenced by their manager, they will turn towards hushed watercooler conversations and selective co-worker messaging threads as an outlet to find community and psychological safety within their mismanaged organization. As the popular expression goes, “people don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad bosses.”
Leadership in the modern era requires increased self-awareness, an appreciation for cognitive science, and a how-to for essential skills. While there are many educational resources for leadership transformation, the method for operationalizing psychological safety is unique within each team. Here’s a checklist to get you started. And here’s to teaming in a psychologically safe organization!
Prepare, Accomplish, Measure: a checklist for building psychological safety
Invite team members to participate. If you have a large team, consider creating sub-groups where people feel comfortable speaking up and assign an individual to represent the sub-group at a larger team meeting.
Foster open communication—welcome dissenting opinions.
Create motivation—articulate why the work matters.
Create a learning mindset by reframing failure. Destigmatize failure by framing it as an important and necessary process of learning. Leaders must demonstrate the willingness to learn by failure.
Demonstrate a genuine eagerness to help.
Demonstrate situational humility—make it safe to say “I don’t know.”
Ask questions—don’t just express your opinion.
Actively listen, acknowledge, and show appreciation.
Approach conflict with empathy and curiosity.
Seek dissenting views, challenge the status quo by overcoming confirmation bias and in-group bias.
Transparency: collectively brainstorm next steps.
Encourage and reinforce employees' commitment to safety by encouraging the filling out of safety reports.
Consider conducting anonymous safety culture surveys annually.
Make psychological safety part of your safety management system.
Create safety performance indicators to measure and enhance a positive safety culture.
Most importantly, seek feedback—often!