How a Leader Created Psychological Safety With His Team

How do you as a leader handle team meetings when one-minute things seem to be going along well, and the next an employee makes a comment that blindsides you?

Such was the case during a recent teambuilding training I was facilitating.

It was like watching a leader on a hire wire act of balancing the elephant in the room that had just been named. Would he acknowledge what just happened without losing his cool or would he ignore it?

In an instant, the answer was clear.

Staying calm and curious, this leader asked questions to better understand the employee’s concerns. While keeping his fight/flight response in check, he maintained his composure conveying he was receptive to difficult feedback about his leadership in front of his team.

When we debriefed the meeting afterward, I commended him for how he handled the situation. Instead of shutting down the conversation with an abrupt “Let’s talk about that another time” or defending his decisions, he created safety for other employees to speak up with their concerns. The end result was a healthy conversation about how the team could improve going forward, starting with the leader.

“How did you do it?” I asked.

“I recognize I can be very driven and expect a lot of my employees. At that moment, I knew I could ignore what the employee said or I could welcome it as an opportunity for us to be honest with each other in order for our team to get better. With everything our employees have gone through with the pandemic and how hard they’ve been working, I didn’t want to blow it. I knew instantly how I responded could easily shut them down if I didn’t stay open when it took real guts for that employee to speak up.”

Memorable Moments Create Big Shifts

How this leader handled this awkward, uncomfortable, and unexpected situation won’t be forgotten by his employees. In a moment, he put the term “psychological safety” into action by demonstrating in real-time it’s okay to have honest, vulnerable conversations and it won’t be used against you.

Through his words and actions, he modeled the very behaviors he wants from the team – to have honest, vulnerable conversations in order to break down barriers that undermine productivity and the ultimate mission of the organization.

That one small moment will create positive big shifts going forward in how the team works together, holds each other accountable, and achieves their organizational mission.

This is no easy task.

Applications to your leadership

Let’s unpack what this leader did well to create psychological safety that you can apply to your leadership.

1. Self-awareness

Healthy leaders are self-aware and willing to ask “What’s it like to be on the other side of me?” Knowing what you to bring to a situation – your strengths, as well as your limitations, are foundational to creating psychological safety with your team.

Application: Increase awareness of how you’re perceived by your employees.

2. What you model, gets repeated

Did you ever hear from your parents growing up “Do as I say, not what I do”?

Just like parents create family norms based on what they model, leaders create work culture norms. From how you treat people to whether you admit mistakes, your employees are watching if your behavior match your words.

Application: Model the behavior you want in your employees. In this case, Rather than reacting defensively, this leader made a conscious choice to accept difficult feedback and the willingness to improve.

3. Use discernment

When the unexpected happens in team meetings, use good judgment to discern how and when to respond.

Let’s say you’re up against a deadline or a crisis situation that demands an immediate answer, it’s not necessarily the right time to talk about team dynamics. While a collaborative approach has its benefits, it also has its limits. Be aware of not allowing a few vocal members to dominate and derail agendas into tangential discussions that prevent projects from moving forward.

In this case, you might want to acknowledge the elephant in the room and table it for another discussion. Setting boundaries and holding people accountable is part of strong leadership.

Other times, like in this leader’s situation, his discernment was to address the situation immediately.

Application: Use discernment of how to respond knowing your team dynamics, the context of the situation, and your ultimate goal of creating a healthy team.

Your behavior as a leader sets the degree of psychological safety on your team. Your behavior matters. A lot.

Model the behavior you want from your employees
and you are on your way to a healthy team

Did you notice yourself agreeing with any of the applications above? If so, how will you shift your behavior to create more psychological safety to improve how your team works together?


About the author

Bonnie Artman Fox is a leadership coach and Accredited Boss Whisperer®. She works with leaders to improve interpersonal skills and bring their teams together. Bonnie is the author of the best-selling book How Did My Family Get In My Office?!

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