Why Psychological Safety is Vital to Effective Leadership

The Jennifer Nash Newsletter

More often than not, people don’t quit jobs—they quit bosses. 

There’s a lot to unpack in that deceptively short sentence. Today I want to offer a deeper look into what kinds of behaviors drive people to ditch a boss.

Research has shown that our work relationships have the largest impact on our overall well-being, physically and mentally. It makes sense, since work dominates so much of our daily lives. That’s why there is increasing interest among leaders and researchers in learning exactly what makes the best working relationships. It’s one of the main aspects my clients come to me for help with!

The social dynamics in a company culture are multi-faceted, with no one factor being the primary determinant of relationship quality. But there is a factor that has the most influence over how people feel under your leadership: psychological safety.

We know from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that safety is a core component of what people need to thrive in their environment. The workplace is no exception. In addition to being physically safe, people need to feel psychologically safe to perform at their best. They need to feel recognized as a human beyond their work output, feel safe to express their personality and interests without judgment or repercussions, and feel a sense of reciprocity in the trust and care they invest into the leaders and colleagues they interact with every day. 

In my upcoming book, Be Human, Lead Human: How to Connect People and Performance, I teach readers how to create psychological safety in their company culture. But today, let’s look at some examples of what it looks like when leaders don’t provide this vital component to an effective work environment.

A Crew Transformed

Brad, a retired Navy officer, shared with me his experience on a ship run by a commander with toxic behaviors. 

“When I stepped on board, the culture was completely toxic. Every conversation was awful. You could feel the heaviness and see the stress in everybody’s eyes.” 

When several tragic events occurred and attracted senior leadership’s attention, the commanding officer was replaced. After a three-day stand-down, the new commanding officer collected feedback and soon implemented new policies around behavior and conduct. Brad said this process led to four of the new commander’s twelve direct reports leaving, as well as several crew members, quickly weeding out the toxicity.

It made all the difference. When he left that ship shortly after for a new post, It struck Brad the extent to which the environment he entered differed from the environment he was leaving. The toxicity and heavy atmosphere were but distant memories.

How has a transforming environment impacted you? What transformations have left a lasting impact on you?

External and Internal Chauvinism from Lawyers

A few years ago, I read a compelling article about the impact of work relationships on our health. It moved me to share my thoughts on LinkedIn about the importance of psychological safety, a post that went viral (but has been deleted since it is over a year old). I was deeply affected by the response my post got—some of the stories people shared were heartbreaking and deeply disturbing. While I no longer have access to the post, I did hold on to some of the stories that especially impacted me. For the next two examples, I’d like to share a couple of those responses.

In the comments of my post, a woman named Beatriz shared how being a woman led to a long journey before she finally found a workplace that provided the respect and psychological safety she deserved from male and female colleagues alike.

“As a woman in Brazil, I had many problems with chauvinism. It is really hard to get your boss’s respect. Once, I heard that I was ‘too cute to be a lawyer,’ so this job wouldn’t work for me.” 

Beatriz also noted that women constantly receiving this attitude can internalize it. “Women see themselves as competitors with each other. I believe that also gets in the way. Nowadays I don’t have this kind of issue, but I had to go through many bad experiences before I found my current job.”

Beatriz’s comment leaves a lot unsaid directly, but I related to it because I know how hard it is to work with people who don’t treat you with respect. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s a universal experience for everyone today, regardless of the field you’ve worked in or your gender identity. But the commonality of it doesn’t make it right. After all:

How can you perform at your best when you don’t feel respected? Or when that lack of respect leads you to not respect the people around you?

You can’t. Which is why people eventually choose to move on.

Literally Toxic Environment

Rowan shared her experience with a supervisor who not only exhibited toxic behaviors, but forced her to work in a toxic office with walls covered in black mold. I was horrified to hear she had to endure such awful working conditions. Rowan left the following comments on the post.

“I became a target for my supervisor as I gained recognition from other teams. She took my assignments, gave me unfavorable shifts, kept me out of the loop, took credit for my work, and even gossiped about me.

The room I worked in was so unhealthy. There was black mold growing on items—which I commented on and was told I was overreacting. The room was cluttered, but when I tried to tidy up, my supervisor mocked me. She acted as if it was a joke, and when I told her that this was not a safe space nor was it ADA-compliant, she called me too sensitive and proclaimed, ‘it has always looked like this!’ 

The sad part was, I really enjoyed working in the organization as a whole. And I had great working relationships with people outside my department who appreciated what I was doing and bringing to the organization. I finally got the courage to leave a terrible situation.”

How can anyone ever feel comfortable, safe, and supported in an environment that fosters toxic beliefs and behaviors?

Effective Leaders Create Psychological Safety

As the examples above illustrate, people will only put up with unsafe working conditions for so long—even if that safety is only psychological rather than physical. The key to being an effective leader and retaining a good team is to practice Human Leadership. One of the key principles of Human Leadership is creating psychological safety for people to flourish. 

If you want to learn how to do that, a great place to start is by signing up for updates on Be Human, Lead Human, available on May 9, 2023. You can get the early chapters for free right now! 

Another great step to elevate your leadership is to subscribe to this bi-weekly newsletter. I have many more examples and insights into the Do’s and Don’ts of effective leadership to share, so don’t miss out!

Share with others

Be the first to read the foreword, introduction and first chapter

Are You a Human Leader?

Take the HLI now and find out!

Leave a Comment