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Easy to Say, Harder to Do: Putting Psychological Safety Into Practice

Of course, people perform better when they feel safe at work. But how exactly do you achieve that? CEOs have a critical role to play.

Psychological safety is having a moment, and with good reason. In spite of the fact that the ideas behind psychological safety have been over a century in the making, it wasn’t until 2012 findings from Google’s Project Aristotle on high-performing teams, combined with Harvard professor Amy Edmondson’s pioneering research in 2017, that companies began to appreciate the deep impact psychological safety has on team performance, enterprise growth, innovation, and more. Today, spend a few minutes reading about the topic online, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find an aspect of workplace performance that isn’t reported to be positively impacted by improved levels of psychological safety. Whether it’s strategy, inclusion, or health and wellness, it all gets better with more psychological safety, we’re told.

You’d have to be foolish to question these results, wouldn’t you? In the spirit of psychological safety, consider me questioning. To be clear, the question isn’t about the value of being able to speak up, take risks and make mistakes without fear of negative consequences — all important aspects of how we define the concept of psychological safety.

The question is about how. Depending on your role and position inside a company, psychological safety also asks you to be vulnerable, bring your whole self to work, be courageous and challenge authority for a purpose. These acts hold real value in creating the kinds of work environments where we can all thrive. It’s also a tall order to put into practice, even for very experienced leaders, which may explain why so many of my C-level clients ask: How does this actually work?

Ironically, this type of question is usually brought up behind closed doors. That’s because, for some, the idea sounds a little too good to be true. As one leader put it: “Psychological safety makes all the sense in the world on paper, but when you’re experiencing big headwinds and getting a ton of pressure from all sides, you’re not up at night thinking about bringing your whole self to work.”

Another said: “We talk constantly about the benefits of psychological safety, but as a company, we’re not hitting our numbers; we’re underperforming. I don’t think enough of us have bought into the idea that these elements are all connected.” Questions like these might partially explain why we aren’t improving as fast as we might like: According to a 2021 study by McKinsey & Company, just 26% of leaders fostered psychological safety at work.

What does it take to put psychological safety into practice? CEOs and senior executives play a particularly important role in that effort. For example:

1. Start in your own backyard. In our research and work with high-performing teams, we see many examples of leaders who care deeply about creating environments of psychological safety for their employees and are equally challenged to demonstrate those same behaviors within the four walls of their own teams. Here’s a basic truth: You can’t give what you don’t have, which is why executive teams have to go first when it comes to psychological safety.

To achieve this, start by recognizing and measuring the degree to which key behaviors like candor or belonging are present on the team, commit to closing gaps, and continue to track progress so you can create mutual accountability and role model the psychologically safe behaviors you want to see practiced across the company. No matter how many times you champion the importance of psychological safety at your organization, most employees won’t trust your commitment until they see you practice those behaviors and create accountability with other executives.

2. Provide a ‘psychological safety’ playbook that translates concepts into tangible actions. Advice to “speak up more in meetings” or “demonstrate candor” may be well-intended, but it often leaves leaders wondering how, when, and what it looks like in practice. To do that, get very concrete and specific about how to apply a new action or behavior, starting with common scenarios. For instance:

  • You’ll share an example of a challenging interaction you had with your CFO.
  • You’ll discuss salary and compensation openly and transparently.
  • You’ll tell a personal story about your life to your team.
  • You’ll regularly discuss failures, dumb ideas, and mistakes.

Unless employees have a clear picture with relevant examples of what psychological safety is and what it is not in the context of their role, their leadership, and their workplace culture, you might not get beyond platitudes and nonspecific guidance that won’t move the needle on performance. Think of this step as putting together the puzzle pieces you need to construct a broad story about your culture and business. You’ll be able to change your own behavior and other leaders’ behaviors when you can anchor onto scenarios actually happening in your organization.

3. Regularly communicate progress. Psychological safety — done right — promises big results and outcomes to organizations. In the meantime, it may be harder for employees to appreciate the smaller wins, signs of progress, and areas where you’re starting to see a change, which is why regularly communicating examples of smaller “befores” and “afters” can be powerful ways to sustain motivation and commitment and help employees appreciate what’s working.

Share examples in different ways, internal and external, so employees and other stakeholders (e.g., partners, customers, and community members) can see what you’re doing and connect those outcomes to performance, results, and drivers for your business. Be upfront about the methods you’re using, talk about what’s having an impact and what’s not, and share what you’re learning.

Psychological safety doesn’t work when only some of us decide to join in: It takes two to tango. Executives can role model behaviors and put the right policies, practices and measures in place to create accountability and reinforce commitment. And when that happens, we have to answer the call, be willing to speak up and take responsibility for what we say, be more courageous, and try new things. In a post-pandemic hybrid world with continued complexity, headwinds and pressure, psychological safety requires full participation because underneath those challenges are so many good things waiting for us: new breakthroughs, great ideas and opportunities for a better future. When psychological safety moves from concept to action to norm, we’ll achieve those things and more.


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