Why Are Some Leaders Afraid of Psychological Safety?

May 16, 2023

No organisational priority has captured more recent attention globally than psychological safety. In fact, interest in the concept has given way to demand for the condition. And for good reason: psychological safety determines an organisation’s ability to attract, develop, and retain its people. Yet some leaders bristle at the mention of the concept. Why?

What is psychological safety? It’s a ‘culture of rewarded vulnerability’. It’s the enabling condition that allows employees to flourish across four successive stages:

  • Feel included (stage 1: inclusion safety)
  • Feel safe to learn (stage 2: learner safety)
  • Feel safe to contribute: (stage 3: contributor safety)
  • Feel safe to challenge the status quo: (stage 4: challenger safety)

Psychological safety ensures that your acts of vulnerability are rewarded, not punished. In short, it is the central mechanism in the formation of a vibrant culture. When leaders nurture it, teams flourish. When leaders neglect it, teams falter.

Despite the transformative benefits of psychological safety, it puts insecure, mediocre or poor leaders – and certainly imposters – to the test. As a levelling device, it redistributes influence. For leaders who feed on title and status, it threatens their positional power. For those lacking competence, it threatens their exposure. Let’s consider how psychological safety causes alarm for leaders in these two camps:

Leaders who feed on title and status

Title, position, and authority are artefacts of power the organisation grants to its leaders. We need hierarchy, a division of labour, and defined roles and responsibilities to function effectively and hold each other accountable to our commitments. Psychological safety, however,  neutralises authority bias, a central liability of hierarchy. We become more agnostic to status and more willing to debate issues on their merits, creating a genuine idea and skill meritocracy based on capability, not title.

That’s wonderful, unless you're a leader that feeds on status, indulges in grandiosity, enjoys disproportionate privilege, or is addicted to the narcotic of power. The cultural anthropologist Ralph Linton’s distinction between ‘achieved’ and ‘ascribed’ status helps us understand why some leaders shun equity and jealously guard their toxic cultures lacking in psychological safety.

If your sense of identity as a leader is based on what you’ve accomplished through performance and effort, you have what he termed ‘achieved status’. You’ve worked hard to develop the competence necessary to get where you are. You welcome psychological safety because your sense of identity is tied more to your efforts and accomplishments than your status and position.

But if your sense of self is bound up in title, position, and authority – artefacts that give you what Linton called ‘ascribed status’ – then anything that might reduce your stature and reputation based on those factors signals a threat. Leaders with ascribed status are resistant to sharing what they perceive as ‘their’ stage of aggrandisement. They will try to protect privilege and consolidate power.

Leaders who try to hide their incompetence

Some leaders shudder at psychological safety because it threatens to expose their incompetence. When psychological safety abounds, the mediocre leader no longer has the weight of position to hide their lack of skill or judgement.

Psychological safety shifts the focus from a power hierarchy to a competence hierarchy. It may not redistribute decision rights, but it does broaden and redistribute participation rights. In organisations with psychologically safe cultures, everyone has an opportunity to influence decisions and courses of action related to their areas of responsibility.

When it comes to finding the right solution, decision or answer to a problem, psychological safety makes the power hierarchy more of an arbitrary distinction. The best ideas win when they don’t yield to power, but power yields to them. Psychological safety offers those with diverse perspectives the opportunity to share their opinions without fear of retribution.

The less competent a leader is, the more likely they will be to exercise control through fear, intimidation, shame, or manipulation. Conversely, the more effective the leader, the more that leader will genuinely listen, collaborate effortlessly, and lavish credit on others, rather than hoard it themself.

As you assess your organisation’s appetite for psychological safety and your leadership team’s need for it, you may want to reflect on the following questions and steps:

  1. What is the current level of psychological safety within my team?
  2. How will I raise awareness for psychological safety among my colleagues?
  3. How will I hold my team accountable to take ownership for and improve their psychological safety behaviours (modelling and rewarding vulnerability)?
  4. How will I monitor improvement and how will I measure the impact of the change?

At this time, when competition to attract and retain top talent is harder than ever, embedding psychological safety behaviours into our working environments, and encouraging our leaders to come out from behind their titles and status is critical to our success.

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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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