Psychological safety and the critical role of leadership development (2022)


Article (9 pages)

When employees feel comfortable asking for help, sharing suggestions informally, or challenging the status quo without fear of negative social consequences, organizations are more likely to innovate quickly, unlock the benefits of diversity, and adapt well to change—all capabilities that have only grown in importance during the COVID-19 crisis. 1 Yet a McKinsey Global Survey conducted during the pandemic confirms that only a handful of business leaders often demonstrate the positive behaviors that can instill this climate, termed psychological safety, in their workforce. 2

As considerable prior research shows, psychological safety is a precursor to adaptive, innovative performance—which is needed in today’s rapidly changing environment—at the individual, team, and organization levels. 3 For example, successfully creating a “network of teams”—an agile organizational structure that empowers teams to tackle problems quickly by operating outside of bureaucratic or siloed structures—requires a strong degree of psychological safety.

Fortunately, our newest research suggests how organizations can foster psychological safety. Doing so depends on leaders at all levels learning and demonstrating specific leadership behaviors that help their employees thrive. Investing in and scaling up leadership-development programs can equip leaders to embody these behaviors and consequently cultivate psychological safety across the organization.

A recipe for leadership that promotes psychological safety

Most Popular Insights

  1. Author Talks: What poker pro Annie Duke can teach you about quitting on time
  2. Europe’s EV opportunity—and the charging infrastructure needed to meet it
  3. A devilish duality: How CEOs can square resilience with net-zero promises
  4. Prioritizing brain health: Scaling what works to add years to life and life to years
  5. Women in the Workplace 2022

Leaders can build psychological safety by creating the right climate, mindsets, and behaviors within their teams. In our experience, those who do this best act as catalysts, empowering and enabling other leaders on the team—even those with no formal authority—to help cultivate psychological safety by role modeling and reinforcing the behaviors they expect from the rest of the team.

Our research finds that a positive team climate—in which team members value one another’s contributions, care about one another’s well-being, and have input into how the team carries out its work—is the most important driver of a team’s psychological safety. 4 By setting the tone for the team climate through their own actions, team leaders have the strongest influence on a team’s psychological safety. Moreover, creating a positive team climate can pay additional dividends during a time of disruption. Our research finds that a positive team climate has a stronger effect on psychological safety in teams that experienced a greater degree of change in working remotely than in those that experienced less change during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet just 43percent of all respondents report a positive climate within their team.

(Video) Why good leaders make you feel safe | Simon Sinek

Positive team climate is the most important driver of psychological safety and most likely to occur when leaders demonstrate supportive, consultative behaviors, then begin to challenge their teams.

During the pandemic, we have seen an accelerated shift away from the traditional command-and-control leadership style known as authoritative leadership, one of the four well-established styles of leadership behavior we examined to understand which ones encourage a positive team climate and psychological safety. The survey finds that team leaders’ authoritative-leadership behaviors are detrimental to psychological safety, while consultative- and supportive-leadership behaviors promote psychological safety.

The results also suggest that leaders can further enhance psychological safety by ensuring a positive team climate (Exhibit 1). Both consultative and supportive leadership help create a positive team climate, though to varying degrees and through different types of behaviors.

We strive to provide individuals with disabilities equal access to our website. If you would like information about this content we will be happy to work with you. Please email us at:

With consultative leadership, which has a direct and indirect effect on psychological safety, leaders consult their team members, solicit input, and consider the team’s views on issues that affect them. 5 Supportive leadership has an indirect but still significant effect on psychological safety by helping to create a positive team climate; it involves leaders demonstrating concern and support for team members not only as employees but also as individuals. 6 These behaviors also can encourage team members to support one another.

Another set of leadership behaviors can sometimes strengthen psychological safety—but only when a positive team climate is in place. This set of behaviors, known as challenging leadership, encourages employees to do more than they initially think they can. A challenging leader asks team members to reexamine assumptions about their work and how it can be performed in order to exceed expectations and fulfill their potential. Challenging leadership has previously been linked with employees expressing creativity, feeling empowered to make work-related changes, and seeking to learn and improve. 7 However, the survey findings show that the highest likelihood of psychological safety occurs when a team leader first creates a positive team climate, through frequent supportive and consultative actions, and then challenges their team; without a foundation of positive climate, challenging behaviors have no significant effect. And employees’ experiences look very different depending on how their leaders behave, according to Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School (interactive).


We strive to provide individuals with disabilities equal access to our website. If you would like information about this content we will be happy to work with you. Please email us at:

(Video) Building a psychologically safe workplace | Amy Edmondson | TEDxHGSE

What’s more, the survey results show that a climate conducive to psychological safety starts at the very top of an organization. We sought to understand the effects of senior-leader behavior on employees’ sense of safety and found that senior leaders can help create a culture of inclusiveness that promotes positive leadership behaviors throughout an organization by role-modeling these behaviors themselves. Team leaders are more likely to exhibit supportive, consultative, and challenging leadership if senior leaders demonstrate inclusiveness—for example, by seeking out opinions that might differ from their own and by treating others with respect.

The importance of developing leaders at all levels

Our findings show that investing in leadership development across an organization—for all leadership positions—is an effective method for cultivating the combination of leadership behaviors that enhance psychological safety. Employees who report that their organizations invest substantially in leadership development are more likely to also report that their team leaders frequently demonstrate consultative, supportive, and challenging leadership behaviors. They also are 64percent more likely to rate senior leaders as more inclusive (Exhibit 2). 8 However, the results suggest that the effectiveness of these programs varies depending upon the skills they address.

Psychological safety and the critical role of leadership development (2)
(Video) Episode #12: How to Build Psychological Safety in the Workplace

We strive to provide individuals with disabilities equal access to our website. If you would like information about this content we will be happy to work with you. Please email us at:

Reorient the skills developed in leadership programs

Organizations often attempt to cover many topics in their leadership-development programs. But our findings suggest that focusing on a handful of specific skills and behaviors in these learning programs can improve the likelihood of positive leadership behaviors that foster psychological safety and, ultimately, of strong team performance. Some of the most commonly taught skills at respondents’ organizations—such as open-dialogue skills, which allow leaders to explore disagreements and talk through tension in a team—are among the ones most associated with positive leadership behaviors. However, several relatively untapped skill areas also yield beneficial results (Exhibit 3).

Psychological safety and the critical role of leadership development (3)

We strive to provide individuals with disabilities equal access to our website. If you would like information about this content we will be happy to work with you. Please email us at:

Two of the less-commonly addressed skills in formal programs are predictive of positive leadership. Training in sponsorship—that is, enabling others’ success ahead of one’s own—supports both consultative- and challenging-leadership behaviors, yet just 26 percent of respondents say their organizations include the skill in development programs. And development of situational humility, which 36 percent of respondents say their organizations address, teaches leaders how to develop a personal-growth mindset and curiosity. Addressing this skill is predictive of leaders displaying consultative behaviors.

Development at the top is equally important

According to the data, fostering psychological safety at scale begins with companies’ most senior leaders developing and embodying the leadership behaviors they want to see across the organization. Many of the same skills that promote positive team-leader behaviors can also be developed among senior leaders to promote inclusiveness. For example, open-dialogue skills and development of social relationships within teams are also important skill sets for senior leaders.

In addition, several skills are more important at the very top of the organization. Situational and cultural awareness, or understanding how beliefs can be developed based on selective observations and the norms in different cultures, are both linked with senior leaders’ inclusiveness.

Looking ahead

Given the quickening pace of change and disruption and the need for creative, adaptive responses from teams at every level, psychological safety is more important than ever. The organizations that develop the leadership skills and positive work environment that help create psychological safety can reap many benefits, from improved innovation, experimentation, and agility to better overall organizational health and performance. 9

(Video) ZFBS JEDI Schirmer

As clear as this call to action may be, “How do we develop psychological safety?” and, more specifically, “Where do we start?” remain the most common questions we are asked. These survey findings show that there is no time to waste in creating and investing in leadership development at scale to help enhance psychological safety. Organizations can start doing so in the following ways:

  • Go beyond one-off training programs and deploy an at-scale system of leadership development. Human behaviors aren’t easily shifted overnight. Yet too often we see companies try to do so by using targeted training programs alone. Shifting leadership behaviors within a complex system at the individual, team, and enterprise levels begins with defining a clear strategy aligned to the organization’s overall aspiration and a comprehensive set of capabilities that are required to achieve it. It’s critical to develop a taxonomy of skills (having an open dialogue, for example) that not only supports the realization of the organization’s overall identity but also fosters learning and growth and applies directly to people’s day-to-day work. Practically speaking, while the delivery of learning may be sequenced as a series of trainings—and rapidly codified and scaled for all leaders across a cohort or function of the organization—those trainings will be even more effective when combined with other building blocks of a broader learning system, such as behavioral reinforcements. While learning experiences look much different now than before the COVID-19 pandemic, digital learning provides large companies with more opportunities to break down silos and create new connections across an organization through learning.
  • Invest in leadership-development experiences that are emotional, sensory, and create aha moments. Learning experiences that are immersive and engaging are remembered more clearly and for a longer time. Yet a common pitfall of learning programs is an outsize focus on the content—even though it is usually not a lack of knowledge that holds leaders back from realizing their full potential. Therefore, it’s critical that learning programs prompt leaders to engage with and shift their underlying beliefs, assumptions, and emotions to bring about lasting mindset changes. This requires a learning environment that is both conducive to the often vulnerable process of learning and also expertly designed. Companies can begin with facilitated experiences that push learners toward personal introspection through targeted reflection questions and small, intimate breakout conversations. These environments can help leaders achieve increased self-awareness, spark the desire for further growth, and, with the help of reflection and feedback, drive collective growth and performance.
  • Build mechanisms to make development a part of leaders’ day-to-day work. Formal learning and skill development serve as springboards in the context of real work; the most successful learning journeys account for the rich learning that happens in day-to-day work and interactions. The use of learning nudges (that is, daily, targeted reminders for individuals) can help learners overcome obstacles and move from retention to application of their knowledge. In parallel, the organization’s most senior leaders need to be the first adopters of putting real work at the core of their development, which requires senior leaders to role model—publicly—their own processes of learning. In this context, the concept of role models has evolved; rather than role models serving as examples of the finished product, they become examples of the work in progress, high on self-belief but low on perfect answers. These examples become strong signals for leaders across the organization that it is safe to be practicing, failing, and developing on the job.


What is psychological safety in leadership? ›

What is Psychological Safety? “Psychological safety is the belief that you won't be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes,” notes The Center for Creative Leadership, a global provider of research-based executive education.

Why is psychological safety important for leaders? ›

Leaders who fail to establish and support psychologically safe team environments can cause irreparable negative consequences and damage to the organization. Creating a psychologically safe work environment starts with coaching focused on behavior change.

How does Amy Edmondson define psychological safety? ›

Organizational behavioral scientist Amy Edmondson of Harvard first introduced the construct of “team psychological safety” and defined it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” Taking a risk around your team members may sound simple.

What are the 5 steps to psychological safety? ›

Improving Psychological Safety Involves the Whole Team
  • Find Out What is Hampering the Psychological Safety of Your Workforce. ...
  • Promote Psychological Safety with Authentic Leadership. ...
  • Identify and Leverage Employee Strengths to Create a Positive Work Culture. ...
  • Realign Workplace Culture to Improve Psychological Safety.

What is psychological safety and why is it important? ›

Harvard's Amy Edmondson coined the term “psychological safety” in a 1999 journal article exploring its relationship to team learning and performance. Psychological safety means an absence of interpersonal fear. When psychological safety is present, people are able to speak up with work-relevant content.”

What are the three benefits of psychological safety? ›

4- Higher Employee Retention and Lower Churn

Psychological safety results in happier teams, increased employee engagement, and improved raising of genuine concerns to employee wellbeing, which results in lower churn rates and decreased costs related to recruitment and absenteeism.

How do you promote psychological safety in a team? ›

Psychological Safety: How to Build and Promote Team Psychological Safety
  1. Practice Giving Feedback. ...
  2. Get To Know Everyone. ...
  3. Collaborate and Share Ownership. ...
  4. Deal With Things When They Come Up. ...
  5. Ask People How They're Doing, and Mean It.

Why psychological safety improves the effectiveness of your team? ›

Studies show that psychological safety allows for moderate risk-taking, speaking your mind, creativity, and sticking your neck out without fear of having it cut off — just the types of behavior that lead to market breakthroughs.

What is an example of psychological safety? ›

Psychological safety is the belief that you won't be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. What is psychological safety at work in particular? 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.

What is the most powerful action a leader can do for creating psychological safety? ›

Positive team climate is the most important driver of psychological safety and most likely to occur when leaders demonstrate supportive, consultative behaviors, then begin to challenge their teams.

What are the four stages of psychological safety list all four? ›

Psychological safety is a condition in which you feel (1) included, (2) safe to learn, (3) safe to contribute, and (4) safe to challenge the status quo—all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way.

What are the elements of psychological safety? ›

The Four Stages of Psychological Safety
  • Inclusion Safety. Members feel safe to belong to the team.
  • Learner Safety. Members are able to learn through asking questions.
  • Contributor Safety. Members feel safe to contribute their own ideas.
  • Challenger Safety. Members can question others' ideas or suggest significant changes.

What is psychological safety Simon Sinek? ›

It's a leader's responsibility to create an environment in. which their team feels psychologically safe. In other. words, when someone is struggling or makes a mistake.

What is the goal of psychological safety Safe? ›

Psychological safety is a belief that no one will be punished or humiliated for sharing ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.

What are the 7 core elements of a safety program? ›

Safety and health program resources and tools are listed alphabetically within each core element area below.
  • Management Leadership.
  • Worker Participation.
  • Hazard Identification and Assessment.
  • Hazard Prevention and Control.
  • Education and Training.
  • Program Evaluation and Improvement.

What are the 5 pillars of safety? ›

5 Pillars of Safety in Healthcare is a disciplined strategy based on five critical areas. Focus on 1) hand hygiene, 2) process, 3) surface measurement, 4) augmentation, and 5) emerging solutions can mitigate infection transmission. All five must work in an integrated program fueled by people, protocols and products.

What are the 5 key elements of safety? ›

5 Crucial Elements Of A Successful And Positive Safety Culture
  • Shared Values. The very foundation of every successful safety culture is a set of shared values at every level. ...
  • Leadership Involvement. ...
  • Continuous Learning. ...
  • Accountability. ...
  • Constant Support.
14 Nov 2018

Who is responsible for psychological safety? ›

To create psychological safety in a group, each team member must act as if it's his or her individual responsibility to create it for the entire team. This sense of personal ownership leads responsible team members to act where action is needed.

What is another word for psychological safety? ›

The concept of psychological safety has been tweaked and skewed over the years, creating high risk in assuming that its definition is an alternate approach for workplace trust.

What is psychosocial safety in the workplace? ›

PSC is essentially the shared perception of employees that senior management have prioritised their mental wellbeing by creating a psychologically healthy workplace.

How do you deal with psychological safety at work? ›

There are three things leaders can do to foster team psychological safety says Edmondson in her TEDx talk on the subject, “Frame the work as a learning problem — not an execution problem — acknowledge your own fallibility, and model curiosity and ask lots of questions.”

Why are leadership behaviors the most important in behavioral safety? ›

Safety Leadership can positively impact people's safety behaviour by up to 86%, and reduce incidents by around 35%. Leaders who set their people up for success, facilitate their follower's needs, and show they care, are very successful at positively impacting performance.

What are the first 3 stages of psychological safety? ›

When leaders cultivate psychological safety, teams and organizations progress through four successive stages. First, people feel included and accepted; then they feel safe to learn, contribute, and finally, challenge the status quo.

What are the three types of psychological hazards? ›

Behavioral issues such as workplace aggression, workplace bullying, workplace harassment including sexual harassment, workplace incivility, workplace revenge, and workplace violence. Personality issues such as narcissism in the workplace, Machiavellianism in the workplace, and psychopathy in the workplace.

How Good leaders Make sure you feel safe Simon Sinek? ›

Management theorist Simon Sinek suggests, it's someone who makes their employees feel secure, who draws staffers into a circle of trust. But creating trust and safety -- especially in an uneven economy -- means taking on big responsibility. This talk was presented at an official TED conference.

What are the four dimensions of psychological safety? ›

Psychological safety is a condition in which you feel (1) included, (2) safe to learn, (3) safe to contribute, and (4) safe to challenge the status quo—all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way.

How can you promote psychological safety in the workplace? ›

How to create psychological safety at work
  1. Promote self-awareness. ...
  2. Demonstrate concern for team members as people. ...
  3. Actively solicit questions. ...
  4. Provide multiple ways for employees to share their thoughts. ...
  5. Show value and appreciation for ideas. ...
  6. Promote positive dialogue and discussion.
3 Jun 2021

What is the importance of psychosocial safety in the workplace? ›

As mentioned earlier, innovation becomes easier with a psychologically safe environment, in that employees are less likely to fear failure and more likely to challenge the status quo. This helps with tackling complex problems and uncovering new ways of working.

What are barriers to psychological safety? ›

Four barriers to psychological safety were identified: hierarchy, perceived lack of knowledge, personality and authoritarian leadership.


1. Building Blocks for Psychological Safety with Linda Valente, MFT
(The Real Tom Finn )
2. Episode 100 | Psychological Safety: Why This Leadership Skill Is Critical with Timothy R. Clark
(HR Studio Podcast)
3. The importance of psychological safety: Amy Edmondson
(The King's Fund)
4. Psychological Safety: What Leaders Need to Know
(WK Support)
5. Exploring the 3 ways to Create Psychological Safety at Work – the Role of the Leader
(Communication and Conflict)
6. The Psychological Safety Playbook: Lead More Powerfully by Being More Human
(Vienna Live with Simeon Morrow)

Top Articles

Latest Posts

Article information

Author: Rev. Porsche Oberbrunner

Last Updated: 10/20/2022

Views: 6677

Rating: 4.2 / 5 (53 voted)

Reviews: 92% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Rev. Porsche Oberbrunner

Birthday: 1994-06-25

Address: Suite 153 582 Lubowitz Walks, Port Alfredoborough, IN 72879-2838

Phone: +128413562823324

Job: IT Strategist

Hobby: Video gaming, Basketball, Web surfing, Book restoration, Jogging, Shooting, Fishing

Introduction: My name is Rev. Porsche Oberbrunner, I am a zany, graceful, talented, witty, determined, shiny, enchanting person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.