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  • Teresa Carey

Are You A “Safe” Leader?

Updated: Oct 26, 2022

Ah, blissful October – the month of apple cider, pumpkin spice, and the enjoyment we experience and crave in all things Autumn.

Paradoxically, along with all the parts of this month we love, come an equal number of events grounded in fear - Halloween, Breast Cancer Awareness, and Domestic Violence Prevention, to name a few. Would you be surprised to learn that being afraid is part of every workday for some team members in your organization?

They’re concerned and yes, fearful– of saying the wrong thing, asking a “dumb” question or not meeting any number of expectations. Motivation, passion, and strong performance are the things we aspire to create in our associates. Yet unknowingly, we sometimes breed the opposite. Our abrupt or harsh reaction to a suggestion that’s misaligned with our thought process, a signaling of disappointment, or response to a failure all create the underpinning for compromised psychological safety.

You may be creating a fearful environment if you find:

  • There’s a reluctance to contribute in meetings,

  • Direct reports are shutting down or avoiding you, or,

  • You’re hearing about issues through other sources vs. your direct reports.

If any of these, or other head scratching examples feel familiar, focusing on the below tenants can go a long way in nurturing psychological safety within your workplace.

  • All communication aligns with being psychologically safe. None of your statements or actions should produce shame, punishment or shut down for others. If you’ve done any of these, it may be time to apologize and take a turn in the opposite direction moving forward.

  • Use the Ray Dalio rule outlined in his book, Principles. It’s simple – leaders aren’t allowed to talk about someone who works for them or something relevant to them UNLESS that person is in the room. Both safety and trust exponentially increase with this type of safeguard in place.

  • Strategic Vulnerably is expected, respected, and rewarded. Making it commonplace to say, “I’m stuck.” “I need your help.” “I don’t understand.” or, “I/We haven’t been here before so I’m not sure what to do.” should be part of everyday conversations.

  • As highlighted in last month’s blog, stay above the line. Consistently be open, curious, and honest in your approach. And, if this isn’t practiced consistently, it might feel like walking on broken glass to those who are trying to guess what the response will be in each interaction.

  • Replace emotional reactions with love and gratitude. Love is the only antidote to fear. Recently a longtime CEO client texted a message to me he’d sent his team about love. That same week, I watched a CEO in a team meeting confess that everything he does is about how much he loves the team and this organization. These are bold and noble moves.

We live in a world of many uncertainties. Fear has escalated in unexpected ways in recent years based on a collision of social, political, and economic events. When our associates show up for work, it should be one of the safest places available.* If your team members know you love them based on who they are (and not just based on what they contribute), AND you genuinely show it every day, it’s impossible for them to be afraid.

What can you do to be a more caring leader that fosters psychological safety?

*Expectations and accountability should still exist in a healthy performance management system. It’s how these are handled that matter. Even difficult issues can be managed in a way that says, “You matter,” “You’re important,” and “We’ll work through this together.”

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