top of page

Leadership Development & Psychological Safety: The Secret Sauce for Team Success

Leaders who promote psychological safety empower their people to stay innovative, agile, and engaged. Appropriately designed leadership development programs can help executives and managers at all levels develop the skills required to create a safe environment.

Psychological safety is essential to innovation and can unlock the benefits of diverse thinking. Only when people are comfortable that they will not be punished for challenging the status quo or making mistakes will they take the risks necessary to bring new ideas to the fore.

A recent McKinsey & Company survey finds that a specific leadership skill set is effective in creating a high-performance work environment where employees feel valued and engaged. Actively fostering psychological safety, it turns out, returns significant benefit:

“Psychological safety is a precursor to adaptive, innovative performance—which is needed in today’s rapidly changing environment—at the individual, team, and organization level”

Feeling Safe in Difficult Times

It can be more challenging during periods of turmoil to create an environment where people feel their voice is valued, but in tough times, supportive workplaces are critical. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a distressing amount of upheaval for countless employees, and although many have returned to the office or settled into remote or hybrid roles, difficulties remain.

Unfortunately, while the McKinsey study found leadership abilities associated with psychological safety to be especially important since the pandemic, the survey results also indicate these skills are not being used broadly across organizations. The gap between the need for—and the ability to cultivate—psychological safety indicates a growing demand for business leaders to invoke the positive behaviors required to shape welcoming workplaces.

3 Essential Leadership Styles

How can leaders make employees feel safe? When it comes to psychological safety, authoritative leadership simply doesn’t fit the bill. An order-giving approach won’t empower employees to ask for help, share suggestions, or challenge ideas.

Instead of relying on such outmoded leadership styles, leaders should adopt aspects of the three connected styles McKinsey highlights as having the greatest impact on feelings of psychological safety. No one leadership style is sufficient on its own, however, so leaders should incorporate all three styles together to equip those around them to perform at their best.

1. Consultative Leadership

Consultative leaders see individuals as talented people who can help the leader make the best decisions and demonstrate varying perspectives. When applying this style, a leader will ask for feedback and input from individuals and prioritize team members’ perceptions about decisions affecting their work.

2. Supportive Leadership

Supportive leaders demonstrate concern for teams, not only as employees but also diverse individuals. Such leaders look beyond the work objectives and evaluate how a person’s overall wellbeing influences their abilities and performance, and they strive to build a positive environment where people feel supported themselves and are encouraged to support one another.

3. Challenging Leadership

The challenging leadership style, when utilized appropriately, can have a great effect on psychological safety. This style encourages teams and individuals to do more than they think is possible.

The key to applying the challenging leadership is understanding that it only works when used after consultative and supportive behaviors are in place and trust has been established. That’s because consultative and supportive approaches provide people with the sense of psychological safety they need to accept challenges. Leaders who then reward creativity and encourage teams to reevaluate assumptions can spark significant growth and innovation.

Foster a Culture Where Leaders At All Levels Can Develop

Using all three leadership styles in a layered approach lays the groundwork for psychological safety, empowers teams to work quickly and creatively, and instills a desire to improve and learn. What’s more, promoting psychological safety can enhance the leadership of those who may not have formal authority. So while behavior modeling may start in the C-suite, it is oftentimes an informal leader who garners the highest level of trust and buy-in and who can best motivate his or her peers.

For most leaders, formal and informal, the intricate dance of applying three separate yet interconnected leadership styles is a learned skill. No wonder, then, that employees who report their workplaces invest heavily in leadership development are also likely to report that their leaders demonstrate consultative, supportive, and challenging leadership capabilities.

Leadership development pays off and McKinsey suggests how best to design and scale up programs with psychological safety impacts in mind.

1. Look for Programs that Deliver “A-ha” Moments

Invest in leadership development experiences that are not just content-driven but also center on emotional insight and connection with others. The more leaders can engage with their emotions, the more they can learn to adapt assumptions and develop enduring mindset shifts.

2. Implement a Daily Practice

While formal learning and skill development are foundational, executives should also find networks of accountability that ensure they apply new skills. Senior-level managers should set aside time each day—even if brief—to reflect on their leadership behaviors or to try something new. Building this practice into a daily schedule can produce winning results!

3. Model Leadership Skills as a Work in Progress

In a psychologically safe environment, perfection isn’t expected. Role models must eschew the need to appear as if they have everything figured out. Instead, modeling good leadership becomes a matter of demonstrating one’s development over time. Leaders who can lead with humility as they grow will tend to embody a desirable combination of high confidence and low arrogance, which promotes higher engagement and deeper trust.

The Time is Now

With a tight labor market, a potential recession looming, and no shortage of social conflict, organizations need executives who can create environments where people feel psychologically safe–and that means prioritizing leadership development programs that help employees at all levels build their skills.

Vistage offers such growth opportunities for members of the C-suite through specialized peer advisory groups. Early and mid-career managers can develop through the Key, Emerging and Advancing Leaders Programs. Want to hear more? Don’t hesitate to reach out.


bottom of page