Good Managers Understand the Concept of Psychological Safety

If you don’t want to be surprised by bad news, create a climate where people will share information and trust you to respond wisely.

Greg, a manager in a large company asked for his employees to be open with him. That didn’t go over well since he regularly dressed down those who came to him with bad news or mistakes they’d made. He was particularly adept at cutting these employees off mid-explanation and going off on them. His weapons of choice were angrily belittling those who made mistakes.

Greg used these tactics intentionally, and he felt they worked well. He claimed they were “tools” for him to keep others on their toes and avoid mistakes. Unfortunately, his tools eventually failed him, forcing his resignation because important information that he needed to know wasn’t given to him. All because his employees feared his outrage.

The concept of “psychological safety” is one that Greg didn’t grasp. The words civility, support, forgiveness, trust, and acceptance all come to mind around this idea of making others feel safe to bring him news he didn’t like.

When Greg’s rage made people feel unsafe, fallout happened—information was withheld from him, mutual trust disappeared, and civility and respect weren’t modelled. Thus, his team began to feel it was okay to disrespect others. Incivility was a virus that infected everyone on his team.

Greg was his own worst enemy. He could use a new perspective and, had he been willing, changed in his behavior. Here’s how that might have worked:

Perspective: Greg needed to grasp that controlling people with hurtful tactics just doesn’t work the way he expected. If he had put himself in their shoes, he might see and admire the courage it took for people to come to him with bad news. He might also see mistakes as learning opportunities. Greg’s mindset was one of controlling people with fear so mistakes weren’t made. They feared him but withheld the very information he needed. Greg’s opportunity to see people as human beings that make mistakes that can become learning opportunities may have allowed him to flourish as a leader.

Behavior: If Greg adopted a new perspective, he might be willing to change his behavior to show more respect to others. This could take the form of being open to news he doesn’t like to hear without cutting people off, listening and asking questions to better understand the situation. He could also learn to be supportive of others when they made mistakes while coaching them to learn new ways to avoid future mistakes. He could learn to genuinely thank employees for any information they provide of any sort.

Blaming and shaming those who make errors doesn’t work to build people up or help them to feel trusted or engaged. Change your perspective and behavior, and you can make a difference in your employees’ work as well as your organization’s results. You may also live a happier life.

Mary Jo Asmus is an executive coach and a recovering corporate executive who has spent the past 12 years as president of Aspire Collaborative Services, an executive consulting firm.