Psychological Safety, Leadership and COVID-19

Psychological Safety and Leadership in the Time of Pandemic

We have all been invited to hundreds (thousands? millions?) of webinars, podcasts and Zoom talks on the current reality we live in: Stuck in our homes, some trying to work and be full time teachers, some sheltering in place away from friends and family and still others crawling the walls to get some personal space. So why am I talking about psychological safety? Seems the furthest thing from our mind. But it is more important than ever in this time of COVID-19.

First, let’s all get on the same page about what psychological safety is. Amy Edmondson, Harvard Business School professor (, coined the term and defined it as a culture “..where people are not full of fear, and not trying to cover their tracks to avoid being embarrassed or punished”.

One of my favorite websites, the Neuroleadership Institute, has a great blog post describing the various kinds of psychological safety:

Safe to be yourself – People can express themselves authentically without the need to “cover up” to fit in. You bring your whole self to your Zoom calls and people see you as authentically honest and open.
Safe to speak up –When you need to challenge another person about their perspective or decisions, you are free from worry about being less liked or, worst case, retaliated against.
Safe to take risks and make mistakes. This means people use a growth mindset (more Neuroleadership language!) to see failures as learnings, not mistakes to cover up or a reason to be berated (
This matters now.

Why? Because it is easier than ever to hide behind our remote working environment and technology to ensure “non-verbal leakage” doesn’t show and you can hide your true feelings. It’s too easy to be nice, not real.

This can cause “ruinous empathy” (a term from Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor, which means being nice to spare others’ feelings. This might make people feel good in the short run but does not improve results – individual or team – in the long run. It can also cause delays in sharing bad news, which can negatively impact performance.

An example: Korean Air had more plane crashes in the 1990s than almost any other airline in the world. Not because they had poor maintenance or pilots, but because the method of communication between crew members was rooted in ruinous empathy – not stating clearly what the issues were in order to deal with them quickly and avert disaster.

But engaging in conflict seems like asking for trouble, especially in front of others. However, psychological safety rests on healthy conflict, the appropriate amount of candor, and leadership modeling how to be humble and open.

So what can you as a leader do to build, or improve, psychological safety in your teams?

Spend time during meetings checking in with team members. Even if the conversation doesn’t always feel work related, keep the dialogue flowing as it will drive productivity in the long run if your teams are able to share, and assuage, their personal fears
Be open. Share your own fears and be humble. Share bad decisions you made and what you learned
Admit you’re wrong. Demonstrate vulnerability and directness. If need be, reset the norm of fear through your actions and language
Solicit input from the team. Hierarchical behavior can be a safety killer; demonstrate openness individually and in a group and let people have a say regardless of their level
Support questioning and doubting – even if the idea is not workable. Gallup says only 30% of US employees think their opinions matter at work – be part of that 30%
See mistakes as learning, not a failure. I love this apocryphal story about Jack Welch: A manager made a dreadful mistake that cost the company over a million dollars. Jack asked why the manager thought he was there, and he responded, “So you can fire me”. Jack responded: “I just spent a million dollars on your education – why would I fire you now?” Be like Jack. Or at least in that regard….
Google Ventures hosted an anxiety party to practice vulnerability where everyone writes down their biggest anxieties and rank them from most to least worrisome. Then they asked for support to allay their fears and problem solve together
Be honest about what everyone is feeling: “We have no idea what’s next, and we are all learning. Let’s all share information and be open to help navigate this uncertainty together”
When someone doesn’t share bad news in a timely manner, meet with them find out why and reinforce your commitment to an open environment where information must be shared
If trust is built by consistency over time, it’s time to focus on building psychological safety. It will pay dividends far past COVID-19 and could change your culture forever.