How Great Leaders Cultivate Psychological Safety At Work


Most of the common problems leaders face in the workplace boil down to navigating the tricky social landscape of people management. So often, managers tend to be fantastic at execution, but not so good at leading.

Leadership is a heavy mantle to bear. While the norms we’ve built around it as a society tend to construe it as a privilege–a metaphorical gilded name plaque–it’s a responsibility more than anything else. Those in leadership positions today can no longer rely on the kind of “I only pay you to do as you’re told” mentality that may have prevailed in previous years.


The best leaders know how to relate to their people without coddling them. They’re able to tap into their people’s goals and values to influence and motivate them to perform to the best of their abilities.

Best of all, according to NYT bestselling author Simon Sinek, great leaders make their people feel safe.

Psychological safety–defined as the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake–not competence, is the most critical ingredient for high-performing teams. When people feel safe at work, they know they won’t get adverse reactions for asking questions, contributing ideas, providing constructive criticism, and so on.


Research has shown that psychological safety in teams is affected by four things:

  • organisational culture
  • team leader behaviour
  • team member interactions
  • personality differences

Of these, the team leader’s behaviour is perhaps the most crucial factor, since leaders set the tone for team interactions and model the kind of behaviours that team members will follow.

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1. Lead by example

Failing to practice what you preach erodes the respect that your subordinates have for you as their leader. As the person at the helm of your team, you need to embody and practice the kind of values, attitudes, and work ethics you want to see in your people. Having double standards will only hurt you.


Crucially, you have to be receptive to feedback from your people. A crucial aspect of psychological safety is the reactions that other people have to feedback. If there’s an adverse reaction to it in the team, people will be less willing to give and receive feedback since they don’t feel safe.

As a leader, you have to set the example. If you’re telling your people to be open to giving and receiving feedback from one another, but you fail to hold yourself to the same standard, it’s not going to work.

Additionally, be willing to admit to your mistakes and failures. Practicing transparency, honesty, and vulnerability in this way paves the way for your team to follow suit.



2. Servant leadership

As Simon Sinek puts it, the best leaders “choose to sacrifice so that their people may be safe and protected.” Servant leaders take their position as a means of enabling their people to become their best selves. They put the interest of their teams and their people first before their own.

A leader who shows that he’s willing to venture first into unknown territory, and to take on risks for the sake of securing his people’s interests, is one who will win people’s loyalty and respect in the long-term.


For example, you might know that showing vulnerability is taboo at your workplace and your team. At the same time, you also know its importance in building team rapport and trust. Despite how daunting it may seem, it’s your responsibility as a leader to bite the bullet and be the one to show vulnerability first, as opposed to just sitting at the head of the table and saying, “Go ahead. Be vulnerable.”


3. Promote inclusiveness

Studies have shown that leaders who display inclusive behaviour are better able to foster psychological safety in their teams. Subsequently, this encourages higher engagement levels and increases the team’s commitment to improving the quality of their work.

People tend to censor themselves from sharing feedback, unconventional ideas, and challenging assumptions for fear of being negatively evaluated. Out of evaluation apprehension, they opt to keep their opinions to themselves.


Effective leaders overcome this by encouraging everyone to speak their mind, but they don’t just stop here. According to Harvard professor Amy Edmonson, it’s vital that you emphasise a learning mindset in approaching the problem at hand.

By positioning participation and contribution to the group as an avenue for learning instead of a means of being negatively judged, you’re minimising the mental block that makes people self-censor, while also discouraging harshness from the rest of the team.


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