Leadership by Design
April 2024
Psychological Safety Levels the Playing Field for Employees
Why and How You Should Lead with Empathy
The Premise
A decade ago, Google’s Project Aristotle famously found that psychological safety is the top driver of team success for all employees. Psychological safety is the shared belief that it is safe to speak up in the workplace and take risks without fear of being blamed or criticized. Lacking psychological safety, employees are less likely to feel motivated and happy, valued and respected, and enabled to reach their full potential.

So, how can organizations create a psychologically safe work environment? It all comes down to empathetic leadership.

Here's how to foster empathy and build a culture of  psychological safety.
The Solution
01. Use your influence as a leader
Although collective buy-in is important, leaders still have an outsize impact. They set the tone by being role models and signaling what behaviors will be rewarded and what won’t be tolerated. Psychological safety can flourish only if it’s driven by leaders. To do so, leaders should formalize time for learning and sharing and hold regular team meetings for reflection. They should be open and authentic. And, when delivering feedback, they should be sure to challenge ideas, not people.
02. Understand how psychological safety makes teams work
As BCG’s Dinesh Khanna explains, psychological safety is essential to the success of teams: Our people work with clients and internal teams on difficult problems. To solve any such problem, you need to come up with an answer that has explored all sides of the argument. If the teams are not able to have open conversations and take risks, to have creative conflict, to share what the frontline workers or middle managers are really feeling, and to bring that to top management, chances are the solution will be suboptimal and likely to fail.
03. Listen like a boss
BCG’s Joe Davis describes his leadership approach: One trait that I have developed as a leader is to work hard to understand another’s perspective. What is in their head? What is their perspective, based on what I know of their context? What are they thinking? Why are they thinking it? Where are they coming from? I also actively look for those who will not agree, who have a different point of view. I invite them into meetings and one-on-ones with me, and I do my best to learn what they know that I do not know.
04. Reap the business rewards
BCG’s Ulrike Schwarz-Runer sees the domino effect of psychological safety. When people feel safe speaking up in the workplace, you’ll notice more innovation and better business outcomes. If people don’t feel safe saying something needs to change, they won’t give 100% or may eventually leave altogether. This is both a missed business opportunity and a loss to the team, on top of potentially harming careers. When people feel safe to speak up, other team members feel empowered to do so as well. It’s a positive domino effect.
05. Level the playing field for all employees
Improving psychological safety drives positive outcomes for all employees but delivers outsize gains for diverse employee groups. It is the equalizer that brings employees of all backgrounds up to the same high-water mark of happiness at work—and erases the attrition gap. With psychological safety, retention increases by more than four times for women and for employees who identify as Black, Indigenous, or people of color; by five times for people with disabilities; and by six times for LGBTQ+ employees. This is compared with an increase of two times in retention for men not in those groups (that is, white, non-LGBTQ+ men with no disability).
Further Reading
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