Psychological Safety for Managers

October 25, 2023

As a people leader, you can either lead the way or get in the way of your team culture. Why is that? Because teams don’t outperform their leaders, they reflect them. What dictates whether or not your team thrives in healthy cultures is a manager’s ability to create psychologically safe conditions for the people they work with.

Leadership is more than just overseeing resources and numbers; it's about mastering the art of developing people through modeling and rewarding vulnerability. However, the most critical aspect of this role is understanding that the organization's most valuable asset is its people. In this article, we'll delve deep into the essence of effective management, placing a special emphasis on the crucial concept of psychological safety and its four progressive stages. By exploring the three levels of leadership and the significance of cultural competence, we'll uncover how managers can steer their teams toward success by nurturing an environment where authenticity, innovation, collaboration, and these four stages of psychological safety thrive.

What is a manager?

As a structural definition, a manager is a person responsible for achieving the goals and objectives of an organization through managing its resources. In this sense, resources refers to everything from time, to budget, to your people themselves. In fact, people are the most valuable resource an organization has, and without them, the organization has nothing.

As disciplines, leadership and management complement and yet compete with each other. They’re interdependent but not interchangeable. They represent different roles, but not different people. You have to blend them in the right proportions based on need and circumstance. Because of this, there’s often dissonance in individuals’ leadership to management ratio: While all leaders are managers in their own right, not all managers step up to become leaders who create safe cultures that empower employees to do their best work.

While all leaders are managers in their own right, not all managers step up to become leaders who create safe cultures that empower employees to do their best work.

What makes a manager effective?

Good and effective managers use their resources to accomplish the goals and objectives of their institution. What’s their biggest and most valuable resource? The people with whom they work. Which means that their success largely rests on their ability to influence others in healthy ways over a long period of time.

Managers always have two competing objectives: They need to develop their people, and they need to hit their numbers. How do you sequence these objectives? Effective managers choose to develop their people first. They understand that their cultural infrastructure serves as a long-term investment in the numbers they’re pressured to hit. Once that healthy culture is established, and if it can be maintained, the numbers will follow.

The takeaway? Our ability to manage to lead depends on how well we interact with others. If we can encourage and empower them to work passionately, autonomously, and effectively, they will thrive. They’ll innovate. They’ll encourage others to be inclusive, collaborative, and engaged.

Technical Competence vs. Cultural Competence

Leading teams and businesses requires much more than technical competence. It requires cultural competence, at the heart of which lies psychological safety. Unfortunately, most organizations make no effort to measure, report, or promote candidates based on their cultural competence. They assume that pure technical competence will translate into pristine, healthy, vibrant cultures. They couldn’t be farther from the truth.

While the traditional pattern is to promote people on the strength of their performance as individual contributors based on their technical competence and the results they deliver, this cannot be the only promotion criteria that’s considered. If you're looking for cultural competence, you're looking for someone who has a track record of creating psychological safety. You are looking for a behavioral pattern of rewarding vulnerability. If the prospective leader consistently and predictably rewards vulnerability, that rolls up into psychological safety, which rolls up into a healthy culture.

How do you ensure that cultural competence and creating psychological safety are at the forefront of your hiring strategy? You can start by build cultural expectations into your hiring process. You may clarify different cultural expectations throughout the interview process, in offer letters, and during onboarding.

Here is an excerpt from a LeaderFactor offer letter that clarifies how employees here are expected to contribute to our culture:

1. Model and reinforce LeaderFactor’s values.

2. Demonstrate the patterns of an aggressive, self-directed learner.

3. Get a little better each day. This is the key to accelerating to competency and beyond.

4. Act inside your role, think outside your role.

5. Participate in the strategy formulation process.Innovate through creative abrasion and high tolerance for candor.

6. Challenge the status quo. Offering constructive dissent is a professional responsibility. If you have a contrary opinion from the organization’s intended course of action, you are obligated to register that point of view. The homogenization of thought is the enemy.

7. Lift, encourage, acknowledge, and support your teammates. Help them get and be better.

8. Collaborate with humility, surrendering your ego defense mechanisms and pride of authorship.

9. Over-communicate and never assume. Ambiguity and assumptions destroy value.

10. Continually improve the customer experience. Pay attention to patterns and outliers.

11. Protect the brand with impeccable integrity. Never take a shortcut. You will eventually get stung.

12. Make a commitment, keep a commitment.

13. Find the price, pay the price. Be willing to leave your comfort zone, travel to your outer limits, and build new capacity.

14. Engage in vulnerable acts. Reward others’ vulnerable acts.

15. Demonstrate coachability–a combination of high self-awareness and high willingness.

16. Help LeaderFactor create a deeply inclusive culture by sustaining psychological safety and removing both conscious and unconscious bias from our interactions.

17. When you work, work hard. Then lay it down and focus on more important things.

These are just our cultural expectations, and we encourage you to create your own. What we expect and what our organization needs may not be what yours expect and needs, and that's okay. The goal is to outline the practical ways that your new employees should be creating psychological safety in their everyday work interactions. If you're having trouble getting started, use The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety Behavioral Guide and choose behaviors that resonate with your organization's mission, vision, and values.

The Three Levels of Leadership

If the baseline for being an effective manager is simply interaction, why do so many leaders fall short? Oftentimes, managers aren’t trained to lead. Usually by no fault of their own, the institutional incentives and infrastructure get in the way of the natural progression of leadership. And as much as they may want to skip ahead, doing so usually does the business more harm than good.

Let’s examine these three levels of leadership more closely: Leads self, leads the team, and leads the business. They build on each other:

1: Leads Self

Leaders start as self-directed employees. If you haven't learned how to earn, deal with, and maintain autonomy,  you're certainly not going to be able to do that effectively at the team level. Yet that's often what organizations ask. That level of discretion is crucial to leadership success, and yet, sometimes leaders are promoted simply because they have a personality to match.

Remember: All leaders take their deficiencies and insecurities into their leadership role. Those deficiencies are reflected in managerial performance. They now have a responsibility to lead a team well, despite their deficiencies. How will they create a safe, respectful work environment, climate, atmosphere, culture?

If you haven't learned to lead yourself and you don't have the necessary self-efficacy, you become a major cultural liability to your team. What’s the criteria for graduation from leads self to leads the team, you ask? Operating with a high degree of autonomy and a high degree of initiative.

2: Leads the Team

When you become a leader of a team, you yourself become the embodiment of levels of psychological safety on that team. These levels could be low, they could be high, or they could be somewhere in the middle, but they are your responsibility. And when it comes to psychological safety, there’s no faking people out. If your motives don’t match your behaviors, if your words and your actions don’t line up, if there’s talk of psychological safety but no evidence of it, everyone will catch on.

We like to say that a team doesn’t outperform their leader, it reflects them. As the primary cultural architect, whatever you do reverberates and solidifies into fossilized culture. The question remains: Are you approaching culture by design, or by default?

3: Leads the Business

Cultural responsibility doesn’t disappear once you’ve become the leader of a business, in fact, it increases. Now, you’re not only responsible for the levels of psychological safety on a single team, you’re responsible for the experiences and engagement of teams, departments, and divisions. If your organization is large enough, you’re also responsible for navigating global teams with different backgrounds, perspectives, needs, and expectations.

Although the level at which you address culture may be zoomed out, good business leaders are still as focused on developing people as the other two levels of leadership. The influence and impact you have on others’ experiences is amplified, but the way to get there is still through discrete interactions with people. They will always be the priority.

How to Build Psychological Safety on a Team

Psychological safety, by definition, is a culture of rewarded vulnerability that’s built in four progressive stages: (1) Inclusion safety, (2) learner safety, (3) contributor safety, and (4) challenger safety.

When you have inclusion safety you can bring your whole self to work. When you don’t, superiority and hierarchy dominate your company culture. You might be officially on a team, but you won’t feel part of the team without inclusion safety.

When you have learner safety in your organization learning is encouraged and celebrated. Learners are protected. When you don’t, mistakes are hidden and punished, and your team executes more than they innovate.

When you have contributor safety in your organization your team thrives under outcome accountability. When you don’t, autonomy is given with little to no guidance, and team members may feel like benchwarmers instead of valued employees.

Challenger safety gives team members a voice to speak up when there's an opportunity to improve. When you don’t have challenger safety teams fall silent and people are punished for their bravery and candor.

What happens when you respect your teams' innate humanity and give them permission to engage across psychological safety's four stages? You'll create sanctuaries of inclusion and incubators of innovation where your people feel safe to be their authentic selves and create value exponentially.

In this next section, we’ve outlined five steps to creating psychological safety for managers:

5 Steps to Psychological Safety for Managers

Step 1: Define Psychological Safety to the Team

You can’t build real psychological safety until your team is on the same page about what it is, what is isn’t, and how it works in team social settings. Otherwise, you won’t be operating under the same assumptions, expectations, and terms of engagement. Here are seven distinctions to make when introducing psychological safety to your team:

Psychological safety isn’t a shield from accountability. Non-performing employees will invoke this as an excuse for poor performance, and insist that psychological safety means valuing people without worrying about outcomes. While people should always be inherently valued, there’s no diplomatic immunity from delivering results in the workplace.

Psychological safety isn’t just niceness. ‍An overemphasis on being warm, hospitable, and caring can turn into a cheerful indifference to the tough decisions that need to be made. We shy away from engaging in the hard-hitting debate and intellectual friction required to solve problems, create new solutions, make break throughs, and innovate.

Psychological safety isn’t coddling. Psychological safety means respecting your humanity, not increasing your fragility. Leaders can’t and shouldn’t wrap their teams in bubble wrap, but should instead work to build their self-efficacy.

Psychological safety isn’t consensus decision making. Psychological safety should give you voice, but it does not change decision making authority. What should change is the level of engagement and collaboration that informs decisions. You should always be able to bring and discuss issues without fear.

Psychological safety isn’t unearned autonomy. Autonomy is earned, not owed. Psychological safety isn’t a shift to universal and self-directed empowerment. It does have the potential to redistribute influence and increase contribution, but guidance, supervision, and approval will still be part of the equation.

Psychological safety isn’t political correctness. Psychological safety does imply sensitivity for the views, feelings, and human attributes that define people. At its core, psychological safety is an apolitical, universal concept that unleashes the potential of people. No one can or should try to harness it to advance their political ends.

Psychological safety isn’t rhetorical reassurance. You can’t will psychological safety into existence with just words. Doing so will increase the levels of toxicity in your organization. You’ll appear to be culturally tone deaf or hypocritical. Model the behavior.

Psychological safety isn’t a nebulous concept only to be discussed by academics. It’s not a forced ideology, a trend, or a box to check. It’s definitely not compliance. It isn’t an escape from accountability, an excuse to be permissive, or an awkward, forced smile. It’s not just kindness, it’s more than diversity, and it’s bigger than corporate. Makes sense?

Step 2: Set Clear Expectations

This is the rule-setting phase, where you answer questions like: What's allowed here? What are the terms of engagement? How are we going to work together?

In a psychologically safe environment, we experience blue zones. These are environments of rewarded vulnerability where people can belong, learn, perform, and challenge the status quo without fear of harm or punishment. The opposite environment also exists: red zones. Red zones are environments of punished vulnerability where attacks, put-downs, off-color jokes, silence, disengagement, and fear are prevailing norms. Neutral zones also exist, and these are environments of doubt where red zone and blue zone behaviors are experienced inconsistently.

Set the expectation that, on your team, you won’t tolerate red zone behavior.

Step 3: Enforce the Expectations

Hold your teams culturally accountable. Even though, at the end of the day, you as the leader are responsible for the cultural conditions of your team, you can instill a sense of responsibility in each of your team members. Call out red zone behavior when you see it. Sure, your teams will come with prevailing norms, habits, and an existing culture. You can’t expect these changes to happen overnight, and there may be some unlearning that has to go on before you can institutionalize the new norms that you want.

In the meantime, identify the cultural liabilities that exist in your legacy culture and encourage behaviors that will mitigate that risk. Changing culture really comes down to changing patterns of behavior at the individual level, so when it comes to enforcing the expectation of blue zone behavior, you need to create cultural accountability. Remember, what you tolerate, you normalize.

Step 4: Live the Expectations Yourself

You, as a leader, are not immune to these cultural expectations. You need to model appropriate behavior and the acts of vulnerability that you’re expecting to see on your team. This first-mover obligation exists especially when the stakes are high, emotions are running high, and you’re faced with tough truths. What’s your emotional response to this kind of dissent and bad news? Are you composed? Are you poised? Are you demonstrating emotional intelligence? Are you demonstrating humility? Are you still listening? Are you still asking questions?

You cannot and should not expect your team members to operate under conditions of psychological safety that you’re unwilling to create, maintain, and encourage yourself.

Step 5: Reward the Vulnerability of Others

If you don't reward the vulnerability of other people, you're not going to continue to get their vulnerability. No amount of psychological safety can exist on a team without consistent vulnerability being modeled, exhibited, and rewarded. What will this vulnerability look like? It may look like questions, feedback, information, requests for more resources, sharing unfamiliar perspectives, and admitting ignorance.

You have to be very careful with how you treat these vulnerable interactions. That response to vulnerability is the mechanism through which increase or decrease the levels of psychological safety on our teams.


In the ever-evolving landscape of modern organizations, the effectiveness of a manager hinges on their ability to create an atmosphere where individuals can progress through the four essential stages of psychological safety. This journey comprises leading oneself, leading a team, and ultimately leading an entire business. To become an exceptional manager, it's vital to set clear expectations, hold everyone accountable, lead by example, and consistently reward vulnerability. By doing this, managers can transform their teams into sanctuaries of inclusion and incubators of innovation, where every member feels safe to contribute their best and drive the organization forward through inclusion safety, learner safety, contributor safety, and challenger safety. These stages are the keys to building a workplace where everyone can be their authentic selves and create exponential value.

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Download 120+ Behaviors to Practice Psychological Safety

If psychological safety is the #1 variable in team performance, how do you improve it? This is a good place to start. With 120+ practical, specific behaviors, the Behavioral Guide will help you know what to start, what to stop, and how to infuse healthy interaction into your work life. It's the companion to The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety Book. Download it today.

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