How to Build the Psychological Safety That Drives High Performance

You need your team to give their best effort—but they won't deliver if they're living in a culture of fear. As CEO, you can help break that cycle.

Imagine this scenario: One of your employees comes to you, frustrated with a colleague who seems to be blocking their intention to embark on a new project.

What do you do? How you manage these kinds of situations determines whether you create a psychologically safe environment that allows your employees to thrive.

two-year study of team performance at Google found that teams that allow employees to take risks without feeling insecure or embarrassed are consistently the highest-performing. That’s because employees can say or do what they know is really needed without worrying about others’ responses or getting negative feedback from the boss.

Psychological safety relies on trust: Employees need the security of knowing that others won’t think less of them if they say what they think, make a mistake, or share a crazy idea. As CEO, you play a central role: Studies consistently find that empathetic leaders more effectively create trusting relationships that translate into higher employee satisfaction and performance. Conversely, leaders who don’t relate to their teams often struggle to motivate employees.

If you can help others become more empathetic and open to the thoughts and ideas of people who are different from them, you will go a long way toward building psychological safety and, as a result, a high-performing organization.

 

Lead From a Place of Understanding

So how should this situation be handled? According to data from tens of thousands of similar scenarios, one response has a disproportionate impact. Teaching this response to your senior leadership and encouraging them to do the same with their teams will create a long-term impact and help drive your business:

1) See: Get in other people’s shoes

When facing a situation like the one at the beginning of the article, the first challenge is helping your employee get into the other person’s shoes. If employees are struggling to influence their teams, it may be that their own judgments and experiences are getting in the way of understanding others’ perspectives. Help employees create trust, safety and connection by putting themselves in their colleagues’ shoes and seeing the world through their colleagues’ eyes. Letting go of preconceived notions and embracing other people’s perspectives creates empathy.

2) Hear: Ensure others feel heard

The foundation of psychological safety is ensuring that the other person feels heard. Once you have helped the employee see the world from the other person’s perspective, the next step is helping them think about how to let the other party feel heard. Guide your employee toward listening with an open heart and reflecting what they hear. When people feel heard, they can more readily empathize with each other and make space for the other’s perspective. True listening creates a psychologically safe space for even difficult conversations. CEOs should model this style of empathetic listening with their direct reports.

3) Connect: Speak to their needs

Once your employee has truly seen and heard their colleague’s perspective and ideas, they can share what is important to them in a way that aligns with the team’s needs. Your employee can show empathy and understanding by addressing the team’s concerns when they respond. If your employee has watched and listened with empathy, the message will be more compelling.

The most high-impact conversations always follow this sequence. First, see the other person, then make them feel heard, then speak to their needs. Coaching employees to do this—and developing their empathy skills in the process—will create the atmosphere of psychological safety that businesses need to reach their full potential. When individuals and groups feel secure, they will uncover new insights and become truly innovative on all levels.

Jerry Connor
Jerry Connor is head of the coaching practice at BTS, an organization that works with leaders at all levels to help them make better decisions, convert those decisions to actions, and deliver results. Coaching empathy is one of "The Four Greatest Coaching Conversations" highlighted in his new book, published Oct. 2019.