The Role Of Authenticity In A Psychologically Safe Environment

The Role Of Authenticity In A Psychologically Safe Environment

Psychological safety has been a hot topic in leadership forums, articles and conferences for years now. Researchers have conducted numerous studies into the benefits of a psychologically safe environment in a business. They have found that not only does it create highly functioning, productive and cohesive teams, but it also ultimately increases a company’s bottom line. Verdict: Psychological safety is vital for a healthy business.

However, despite the knowledge of its benefits, leaders do not always know where to start fostering psychological safety in the workplace. Despite knowing that we desire to make our employees feel safe and valued, a research survey from McKinsey indicates that only 26% of team leaders effectively promote a positive and safe workplace.

We have some work to do.

The first step is to think about what an unsafe psychological environment looks like. What makes people feel like they must hide who they are and makes them unwilling to voice their opinions? Most often their hesitation stems from uncertainty and fear of being disliked or saying something “wrong” or “stupid” and being punished for it in some way.

The next step is evaluation—both of yourself and your team. What type of environment are you creating? Does everyone actively participate in meetings? If not, why not? Are you specifically asking for opinions and placing value on others’ thoughts? Are there some people who speak up more than others, and why are those quieter voices staying silent? Perhaps some team members feel valued and confident to speak their minds while others do not. Why?

During my coaching sessions, I have walked through some of these questions with clients. Through their answers, we have identified opportunities for improvement. Some have also recognized patterns in their leadership style that inhibit employees from speaking their minds. Often the remedy to those undesirable patterns is authentic leadership.

For example, my client Robyn was undertaking a self-evaluation of her role in promoting a healthy and supportive workplace environment and realized that she was inadvertently being inauthentic when asking for her direct reports to speak their minds.

She was newly appointed to a team leader role and wanted to make a good impression. Though she did ask for input on a regular basis, she usually did so at the end of a meeting when things were wrapping up, most decisions had already been discussed and teammates were anxious to get out and on with their work. The timing was off, and most times no one said anything.

After some consideration, Robyn realized that she was choosing that time on purpose because part of her was afraid of opposing viewpoints and looking foolish in front of her direct reports. She was letting that fear alter her otherwise authentic leadership style, therefore blocking the route to a psychologically safe workplace.

She decided to face that fear, to remind herself that opposing (yet respectful) points of view are healthy—if not critical—to company health and are not a reflection of her poor leadership or a personal attack. They are simply part of normal business conversations.

Keeping this in mind, she began honestly requesting feedback much earlier during her meetings and, over time, saw a marked difference in staff contributions and dialogue.

Robyn is an intelligent and hard-working leader, and course-correcting to an authentic leadership style makes her perform even better in her role.

Authentic leaders communicate with intention and honesty. When they ask for input, they really do want it. (As opposed to inauthentic leaders, who ask for employee feedback as a mere formality with no intention of consideration.)

Authentic leaders display emotional empathy and recognize that for some people, it can be challenging to express an opinion—especially a contradictory one—to someone “higher up” who may have certain control over future job opportunities or pay raises.

Authenticity requires a leader not only to be open to others’ perspectives but also to respond to that input humbly and openly. Sometimes that input will help guide a decision and other times not. Regardless, simple acknowledgment is enough to encourage employees to contribute again and set an example for other co-workers to do the same.

On the other hand, an inauthentic leader will shut down a safe environment pretty quickly, whether intentionally or not.

Leaders display inauthenticity and decrease psychological safety when:

• Asking for thoughts and ideas on how to solve a problem while already knowing how they plan to solve it.

• Quickly or publicly dismissing opposing viewpoints out of pride or fear.

• Outright ignoring input.

• Asking for opinions that incite a challenge (e.g., “I think this. Anyone disagree?). Few will feel comfortable voicing an opposing view because they may be afraid to challenge their boss’s authority.

While some companies verbally encourage the idea of a “speak-up” culture in which all employees can voice their opinions, inauthentic leadership will quickly shut down that policy. Psychological safety is dependent on how leaders receive, acknowledge and utilize their employees’ ideas. Mismanaging staff thoughts and opinions will deter further contributions and diminish the safety of a team’s work environment. Authenticity is crucial for managers and directors to guide and encourage open dialogue in an emotionally safe workplace.

This article has previously been featured on Forbes

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