Blog articles

Perspectives in Leadership: Fostering psychological safety in organizations

Alex Draper has had his share of bad bosses. He knows that poor leadership can impact stress and mental health. But he also knows that poor leadership can be unintentional. 

As the Founder and CEO of DX Learning Solutions, Alex has identified two key factors that make an organization worth working for: good leadership and psychological safety.

He joined our Perspectives in Leadership podcast to talk about the importance of psychological safety and how leaders can create a healthy work environment for everyone. Listen to the full episode to hear all of his advice:

*Answers have been edited for length and clarity.*

You say that your mission is to wipe out bad leadership. Have you had some bad bosses?

We’ve all had a bad boss, and I’ve had some negative experiences that became indented in my brain. I wanted to start a business to stop that from happening.

Basically, there are people called accidental assholes. They don't know that they're an asshole. They just are accidentally. And that's the nature of my business. 

I don't think most bad bosses know that they’re being a bad boss, and I hold a degree of empathy for them. One of the hardest things in life is leading human beings. Everyone is different. We all have our challenges. Being a great leader is actually so darn difficult.

As someone devoted to leadership training, what are you hoping to accomplish in a single organization or across the whole space of leadership?

If you are stressed out, it can kill you, and people have harmed themselves because of stress. So, our obligation to the world is to reduce stress and improve wellbeing. I think my psychologist found this data, but we typically spend 90,000 hours at work. If those 90,000 hours are stressful, then it's going to have negative effects on us as human beings.

We all know that being stressed sucks. Most of that stress comes from toxic cultures, and toxic cultures come from bad bosses. Culture mirrors how business owners, executives, and leaders think and behave. But if you can change the way people think and behave, you can change culture. 

As a society, we’ve built an entire culture around working for the weekend. I love my job and the people I work with. But work can still become a major stressor as an individual contributor. I want to unpack psychological safety and why it’s important for people who might not be aware of the concept. What does psychological safety mean to you? How do you implement it with the people you work with?

I'll use Amy Edmondson's definition of psychological safety. Amy Edmondson didn’t coin the term psychological safety, but she really brought it to the mainstream. Her definition of psychological safety is essentially, “I feel safe to speak my mind without fear of negative consequences.” 

In other words, I can say what I need to say without fearing that someone will hold it against me or say negative things about me. In this team, I feel safe to take risks. I feel safe to be my true, authentic self. I don't have to hide behind any false skin or identity. 

Psychological safety is the opposite of fear. It’s fearlessness. If I feel fear, I'm not going to say anything. If I feel fearless, I’m free to speak my mind. I don't go home every night thinking, “I wish I could have said something to this person. I didn't say it because I didn't know how they were going to react.” That's not psychological safety. That's fear.

Now that so many of us work remotely, the only interaction we get with each other is through Zoom videos and Slack messages. How do you think that’s affected psychological safety in organizations?

Psychological safety is difficult to measure. I don’t know the answer to your question right now, but there are certain components that positively impact psychological safety: Clarity, Autonomy, Relationships, and Equity (CARE).

If I care for my people intentionally and consistently over time, they feel free to speak their mind. If they speak their mind, they feel less stressed. They can open up and we can achieve greater things together. Knowing that, let's put those four components in the context of hybrid work.

4 components that influence psychological safety

1. Clarity

As human beings, we need clarity to feel safe. In the old days, if I didn't know where it was safe to eat, it meant death. We need clarity to survive. 

Our job is to provide clarity to our teams. This is harder to do when everyone isn’t in the same room. In the hybrid world, you have to be more deliberate and ensure that everyone in your team, no matter where they're located, has clarity. Any ambiguity can lead to stress and fear.

2. Autonomy

We all crave control, right? In the old days, if I could control my environment, I was more likely to be safe. If it was cold, I could build a fire. If there was a storm, I could run into a cave. I feel comfortable when I'm in control. I don't feel comfortable when someone's trying to steal my control. 

In a hybrid world, leaders feel like they have to control people. Many leaders are distrustful of their employees. That’s why we’ve been hearing about thousands, if not millions, of people leaving their organizations. They don't have the autonomy that they want.

3. Relationships

Here's the worst one: relationships, or creating a sense of value and belonging between team members. In the old days, if my skills and talents weren't valued, it meant death. I might be excommunicated from the group.  

In a hybrid world, it’s much harder to build relationships. You have to get on the phone. You have to turn your cameras on. You have to find the time to talk, and no one has the time. If my boss doesn't intentionally come up to me and ask me how I'm doing, that relationship won’t form.

4. Equity

Equity is the fair distribution of time, energy, and resources to those who need them most. But if you don't have a real relationship with your people, how on earth can you actually provide your resources equitably?

We call this the CARE equation: Clarity, Autonomy, Relationships, and Equity. I haven't proven it, but it's way harder to care in a hybrid world. So I can only fathom that psychological safety has fallen through the roof.

Transparency provides clarity and helps create that sense of psychological safety. Do you have any tips for organizations looking to create a transparent culture from top to bottom?

There are so many accidental bad bosses out there because our brains use cognitive shortcuts to preserve our energy and resources. In order to protect ourselves, we're inherently built to be selfish. Transparency means being selfless. 

A leader is an imperfect human being just like you and I. They will do what they think is best until they’re told otherwise. So if you can’t tell your leader that something isn’t working, they won’t change. 

In a psychologically safe team, we’re transparent and open with each other, even our leaders. As I mentioned before, culture is a mirror of leadership. When leaders or people with influence act with transparency, everyone else will follow their example. 

You can further hone behaviors by creating company values that prioritize transparency. Then act on them. That creates culture.

Even in a healthy work environment, individual contributors may find it difficult to manage their fear of negative consequences. Do you have any advice for someone who may be feeling this way? 

It’s important to consider whether this fear is a result of the environment you’re in currently, a previous experience, or your brain’s wiring. I would ask anybody who's struggling with something like this, “Can you talk to your boss or team members about the same things you talk about with your therapist or family members?” If the answer is no, then you aren't in a psychologically safe place.

Real psychological safety results in vulnerability. Feeling psychologically safe means that you can approach your leader and teammates with your struggles. They can’t help you unless you tell them that you need help. A truly safe team helps each other. 

If you’re in a healthy work environment but still struggling, going to your therapist is one thing you can do, too. I have a list of therapists that I see because I have a lot of baggage. We all have baggage, but keeping it to ourselves is often the source of the problem.

What's something that happens on a daily or weekly basis that makes you proud and excited to be doing this work?

When I hear about a member of my team doing something in their world without any help from me, that really stokes my fire. Client-wise, I’m most excited when I get an email from a client or a participant that says, thank you, your leadership experiences have changed the way I think and the way I treat people. Because if just one person changes the way they behave, they can change thousands of other people in the process.