Psychological Safety Requires Leadership Courage

July 08, 2021

In a great forthcoming paper at Organization Science, Wharton School researchers Constantinos Vassiliou Coutifaris and Adam Grant show that managerial attempts at “being open” – even when it includes explicitly inviting feedback – is often not enough to foster psychological safety. Sharing self-directed feedback – namely, feedback on their own recent performance review indicating areas where they need help or improvement – was what fostered greater psychological safety. This didn’t happen immediately because it took time for followers to move from feeling awkward or afraid of providing more honest input to believing their leader was serious about creating a new level of trust and openness.

This reminds me of something I’ve been saying to leaders a lot these days: If you want to see more learning behaviors of all types, be vulnerable enough to model the behaviors yourself. Said another way, don’t encourage courage (which implicitly says you’re OK with your employees’ current level of fear); instead, be courageous enough to do things that will help others feel safer.

I ask leaders to consider how recently ….
… they have publicly acknowledged not knowing an answer or needing others’ help;  
… they have apologized publicly for an oversight or mistake;
… they were directly challenged or corrected by someone below them, and then thanked for their positive response;
… they stuck out their own neck out publicly;
… they publicly celebrated someone for taking a prudent risk even though it didn’t work out;
… they replaced some of their closest advisors who were “yes (wo)men” with clear “truth tellers”; and,
… they changed – despite resistance – a decision-making procedure, promotion policy, or some other system that was fostering conformity rather than candor.

And then I issue this friendly challenge: If it takes you a long time to come up with examples of the above, or you can only think of examples from months or years ago, then perhaps you’re not as committed to psychological safety or as impressed by courageous action as you espouse.

Yes, doing the things above can make us feel vulnerable. But assuming you’ve established your overall competence, this type of vulnerability is unlikely to make you look weak. Instead, it shows you have the strength to create a trusting, learning-oriented environment where people can grow as individuals and thrive together.

To learn more about how to model, rather than encourage courage in others, check out my new book, Choosing Courage.

Written By

Jim Detert

Jim Detert is the John L. Colley Professor of Business Administration in the Leadership and Organizational Behavior area at the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business Administration and a Professor of Public Policy at the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. Prior to joining UVA, he taught at Cornell University's Johnson School of Management and was the faculty director for the School's leadership initiative.