“Leaders cast a long shadow” is a saying for a reason — because it’s true. Psychological safety at work is a feeling created through the words and actions of leaders. And if there’s such a thing as a secret to success for any kind of workplace, psychological safety is it. Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as the “belief that the context is safe for interpersonal risk-taking — that speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes will be welcomed and valued.”
Think for a minute about what you lose when you have an organizational environment that squashes ideas and innovation. You’ve spent countless dollars recruiting great talent, only to bring them in and effectively silence them. No organization can afford to do that.
As a leader, the first step in creating a safe space for your team to speak up is to actually listen when they do. It sounds easy, but many managers think they’re expected to always have the answer, so they unconsciously slip into cut-to-the-chase conversations. Three words in, you think you already know what’s going to be said, so you jump in with the answer. But listening is the foundation of psychological safety. When we feel heard and understood at work, we do better. We’re more creative, more collaborative, more innovative, and just generally happier to be on the team.
Here are four ways become a better listener:
1. Offer your undivided attention
Close your laptop, put down your phone, and focus on what your colleague is saying. It sounds easy, but look around and notice how rare it actually is. To do so likely requires silencing the voice in your head that says “I don’t have time for this.”
2. Keep quiet
Resist the urge to jump in and tell a story about a similar situation, or launch too quickly into problem-solving mode. Your colleague may need to feel seen and heard more than they need a solution or an opinion.
3. Check your understanding
Recap what you’ve heard from your colleague, without commentary, to demonstrate you truly listened. Ask questions if you need more information or to check your understanding.
4. Close the loop
Depending on the content of the conversation, follow up in a timely manner with next steps or further thoughts after you’ve had a chance to reflect.
Psychologically safe environments don’t happen by accident. They require intention. By being curious and listening deeply, you’re showing your team that their thoughts are welcomed and valued — an important step toward building a psychologically safe culture. As a bonus, you might even learn something new.