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How Leaders Build Psychologically Safe, High-Growth Organizations

A vase with a bunch of delicate flowers on a light color beige piece of cloth.
Hacking HR Team

Posted on November 20, 2023

Leaders are at the heart of dynamic and fast-paced changes organizations and people undergo (COVID-19 pandemic, recession fears, technological disruption, demographic shifts, and more). Like never before, foundational leadership skills are undergoing testing. Nowadays, it is not just about understanding the 'what' of strategy, but mastering the 'how' to implement it with people. Put differently, today’s leaders need to find “people solutions” to business problems and challenges -which require a stronger and more keen focus on psychological safety. 

Leadership in Dynamic Environments: The New Paradigms

Historically, leadership often revolved around authority, decision-making prowess, and strategic vision. We live in an era dominated by agile, fast-moving teams. Therefore, fast-growing organizations and their ecosystems demand a more adaptive and inclusive leadership style. Organizations expect leaders to be:

  • Navigators of Complexity: As team structures get flatter and more diversified, leaders need to manage not just tasks but emotions, conflicts, and differing viewpoints. They grapple with the ever-changing demands of their stakeholders and the complexities that arise from such varied input.

  • Champions of Resilience: The quicksilver nature of markets means that setbacks are par for the course. Leaders must drive teams forward while ensuring such lapses do not erode team morale.

  • Custodians of Communication: Effective communication -particularly active listening- becomes pivotal with the rise of remote and hybrid teams. Active listening fosters deeper understanding and trust, bridging gaps that might arise from digital interfaces. Through enhanced communication, leaders can ensure a sense of belonging and unity in diverse teams.

These growing paradigms underscore the need for leaders to prioritize psychological safety as a foundational pillar.

Psychological Safety: A Deeper Dive

In a world that often rewards efficiency and speed, psychological safety is paramount for leaders aiming to foster healthy, innovative, and cohesive teams. Psychological safety is not a monolithic concept; it is multifaceted, demanding a bespoke approach tailored to individual team dynamics and organizational cultures.

  • Systemic Nature of Psychological Safety: Recognizing that psychological safety goes beyond individual or team dynamics is essential. Leaders must focus on the broader organizational factors, especially when navigating the complexities of agile, fast-moving teams. This entails revisiting the organizational structure, fostering a culture that rewards learning, and aligning teams with a shared purpose. It is not just about addressing overt issues. But also the subtler, systemic factors that might undermine psychological safety. For instance, a culture that inadvertently rewards only results, not the learning process, might deter team members from taking risks or sharing innovative ideas. How might the existing organizational structure and norms silently hinder psychological safety, and how can you proactively disrupt these patterns?

  • Adaptive Leadership for Dynamic Safety Needs: Psychological safety is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Different situations demand varied leadership strategies. Within how an agile team manages change, leaders must be poised to offer timely support that aligns with the fluidity of agile methodologies. The importance of psychological safety in agile teams becomes clear during product launches, as your employees might need more instrumental support, while post-project reflections might require more emotional backing. The dynamic nature calls for leaders to be wise and adaptive, ensuring the team's psychological needs are met in real-time. Are you equipped to discern your team's shifting psychological safety needs, and how can you refine your adaptability to meet these needs?

  • Physical Influences on Psychological Safety: Beyond cognitive and emotional constructs, the physical work environment profoundly influences psychological safety. Leaders should be astute observers, ensuring the workspace fosters comfort and well-being. This includes considering everything from the layout and temperature to promoting positive non-verbal cues, such as consistent eye contact and encouraging postures. As many organizations shift to hybrid working models, leaders must ensure that both in-office and remote team members feel psychologically secure. It extends beyond virtual check-ins—it involves creating an inclusive culture where all voices, irrespective of their physical work location, are valued. How does your current physical workspace—or the absence of it in remote setups—impact the team's sense of belonging and safety, and what tangible changes can you implement to enhance it?

Building Blocks of Psychological Safety: A Leader's Toolkit

Recognizing the importance of psychological safety is a crucial first step. Yet, to bring this concept to life, leaders need tangible tools in their kit:

Inclusive Decision-Making: Diverse teams bring diverse viewpoints. Encouraging inclusivity ensures that every voice, no matter how contrarian, is heard. It fosters a culture where team members believe their input is valued.

  • Tool: Idea Box: Implement a virtual or physical 'idea box' where team members can drop suggestions. Regularly review and discuss these in team meetings.

  • Tool: Roundtable Discussions: Host discussions where members get equal time to share their viewpoints on a particular topic or project.

Embrace Vulnerability: As the Harvard Business Review suggests, promoting openness and vulnerability can be transformative. Leaders are often viewed as infallible figures. By showcasing vulnerability, they make it permissible for team members to admit mistakes, fostering an environment where learning trumps blame.

  • Tool: 'Fail Forward' Sessions: Organize monthly sessions where team members, including leaders, discuss a mistake they made and what they learned from it.

  • Tool: Personal Story Sharing: Create a space where leaders can share personal stories or challenges (that you and other leaders have faced in their careers), allowing team members to see the human behind the title.

Feedback Mechanisms: Static strategies rarely succeed in dynamic environments. Instituting regular feedback mechanisms, both formal and informal, ensures that leadership styles evolve in tandem with team needs. Having anonymous feedback mechanisms can provide insights into underlying team concerns to act on, demonstrating their commitment to psychological safety.

  • Tool: Open Office Hours: Set aside a weekly dedicated time when team members can approach leaders with concerns, feedback, or suggestions without prior appointments.

  • Tool: Anonymous Surveys: Use tools to gather anonymous feedback about team dynamics and leadership.

Flatten Hierarchies: Leaders can encourage open dialogue by making organizational structures more horizontal. A less rigid hierarchy means employees are more likely to voice concerns and offer innovative solutions.

  • Tool: Cross-functional Teams: Rotate team members across different projects or departments, allowing them to work with diverse peers and managers.

  • Tool: 'Skip-Level' Meetings: Organize meetings where employees can directly communicate with higher-level leaders, bypassing immediate supervisors. It fosters direct communication and reduces power distance.

On the top center is the Hacking HR logo and below a Leadership quote: "The best leaders have absolutely no problem saying:   "I was wrong"  "I'm sorry"  "I don't know" "I need help."

Assess, Iterate, Improve: The Continuous Cycle

In the high-octane realms of today's organizations, leadership is more analogous to traversing evolving terrains than arriving at a static destination. At each juncture, leaders are beckoned to recalibrate, reassess, and reimagine their strategies to uphold psychological safety amidst rapid growth spurts. Here is how this continuous cycle unfolds:

Adopt Metrics: The digital era heralds a data-informed approach, and leadership is no exception. Psychological safety, though intangible, can be captured through discernible metrics. But it is not just about gathering data; it is about diving deep, connecting the dots, and gleaning actionable insights. The goal? Foster an environment where every voice matters and every concern is addressed promptly.

  • Actionable Tip #1: Launch a monthly "Team Pulse Survey." Use simple yet straightforward questions like "On a scale from 1 to 10, how comfortable do you feel sharing your opinions openly?" Analyze patterns over time and address consistent areas of concern.

  • Actionable Tip #2: Invest in digital tools that monitor team morale in real-time, like platforms that allow for anonymous feedback or apps that track workplace mood.

Engage External Insights: Even the most seasoned leaders can benefit from an external lens. While introspective tools and self-assessment have merit, the narrative occasionally needs a fresh vantage point. It is where organizational psychologists or culture transformation experts step in. Their detachment from daily organizational nuances allows them to identify underlying patterns, behavioral anomalies, or cultural gaps. Collaborating with such experts brings a fresh perspective and introduces proven methodologies and frameworks that can catalyze the journey toward a more psychologically safe environment.

  • Actionable Tip #1: Host a biannual workshop with an organizational psychologist. Let them observe team meetings, read anonymous feedback, and offer insights on where the team stands in terms of psychological safety.

  • Actionable Tip #2: Establish a 'cultural audit' with a third-party consultant once a year. Their objective stance can pinpoint systemic issues that might be invisible from within.

Commit to Continuous Learning: Gone are the static leadership manuals. Today's organizational tapestry is in perpetual motion, which implies a commitment to never-ending learning. It is about proactively seeking knowledge, attending workshops, or participating in peer forums to exchange experiences. As organizational goals pivot and team dynamics evolve, leaders must be agile in their approach, constantly updating their playbook.

  • Actionable Tip #1: Dedicate an hour weekly for "Leader Learning Time," such as reading articles, listening to podcasts, or taking online leadership and team dynamics courses.

  • Actionable Tip #2: Organize quarterly roundtable discussions with leaders from diverse industries. Sharing challenges and solutions across sectors can unveil novel strategies for maintaining psychological safety amidst growth.

On top is the Hacking HR logo and below a Leadership quote that reminds us the importance of psychological safety:""Insecure bosses surround themselves with people who always agree with them.  great bosses surround themselves with people who disagree with and challenge them."

The Road Ahead

Fast forwarding to 2024, leaders will still face the intriguing challenge of balancing swift execution with human-centeredness. 

Hence, the groundwork for such leadership must be laid out now. It is tempting to perceive rapid growth and psychological safety as entities on opposite sides of the business-people spectrum. However, contemporary leaders redefine this narrative, viewing psychological safety as the bedrock upon which high growth is anchored. They understand that an environment where employees can candidly voice concerns, share out-of-the-box ideas, or admit to mistakes without fear is an environment that breeds innovation. And in the modern age, innovation is the fuel that propels organizations to exponential heights.

Yet, achieving this delicate balance is no mere feat. It demands a departure from age-old hierarchical structures and power dynamics and requires an embrace of inclusivity, collaboration, and continuous learning. As the custodians of organizational culture, leaders have their tasks cut out. Each day poses an opportunity to either entrench old ways or carve new pathways where psychological safety and growth thrive. The former might offer the comfort of familiarity, but the latter promises a future of unparalleled success, resilience, and dynamism.

Creating Psychological Safety in Small and Medium-Sized Organizations

As you navigate the complexities of leadership in today's fast-paced business world, our insights are just the beginning. To dive deeper into practical strategies and actionable tips for creating a culture of psychological safety, we invite you to download our comprehensive E-book, 'A Practical Guide to Creating Psychological Safety in SMBs.' This guide offers real-world examples, easy-to-implement tactics, and insights tailored for small to medium-sized businesses. Embark on your journey towards a more inclusive, innovative, and successful organization by getting your copy today!

The cover of the E-book "A Practical Guide To Creating Psychological Safety in SMBs (Small and Medium-sized businesses) show the Hacking HR logo on top center; below is the title, and a decorative image.
Free downloadable E-book, 'A Practical Guide To Creating Psychological Safety.'

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