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leadership psychological safety

How Leaders Create Safety

In my coaching practice with leaders, the importance of psychological safety has become increasingly evident. It’s apparent in the nervous systems of people I come across in my work and in my personal life as well. My personal observation is that more people are in Fight/Flight/Freeze mode than before the pandemic in most parts of the world.

What’s going on?

With the amount of changes and socio-economic turbulence we’ve collectively experienced, there is more overwhelm. It turns out that our social interactions and workplaces can activate the same threat responses in our brain that we rely on for physical survival. Both online and in the real world, we are regularly experiencing a threat response to what’s happening around us.

What does this do to us?

Our heart and empathy shuts down. Our cortisol and adrenaline shoot up. Our heart rate and blood pressure increase. Our creativity gets stifled. Real connection feels hard. This primitive response makes us feel like we’re in physical danger and in survival mode.

When so many things are changing — like a global pandemic, wars, economic downturns, layoffs, etc — we naturally see an increase in people entering this mode. Leaders are increasingly having to grapple with creating a safe environment amidst the challenges of constant change.

A helpful framework

David Rock’s SCARF model provides a valuable framework for understanding and addressing social threats in the workplace. Based on neuroscience research, SCARF offers 5 key “domains” that influence our behaviors in social situations.

A short summary tailored for leaders:

Status: Leaders should be mindful of status markers and hierarchy signaling that may unintentionally heighten social distance. While there are situations where a status gap is necessary, minimizing it fosters a sense of safety and collaboration in the long-term. Additionally, regularly rewarding team members when they perform well provides an opportunity for people to feel valued and celebrated for their strengths.

Certainty: Organizational and marketplace changes inherently bring uncertainty. Leaders can alleviate anxiety by acknowledging information asymmetry in the organization, offering meaningful support for employee flexibility and resilience, and sharing what can be disclosed in small chunks to teams. Clarity on what team members should focus on is also highly recommended so that employees feel safe in the knowledge of what good looks like in an uncertain environment.

Autonomy: Leaders must recognize the impact of their behavior on others’ sense of empowerment and autonomy. Micromanagement is the biggest threat to autonomy and a sense of trust in others’ judgment. Leaders can alleviate this by encouraging people to take on more responsibilities and the freedom to try out new ideas within a set of priorities.

Relatedness: Perceived social distance triggers threat responses. An example would be a team member being left out of lunches or connective conversations. Leaders should actively build relationships across the team, creating a shared identity over time. Consistent efforts, especially through small talk and team-building moments, contribute to a connected team.

Fairness: Leadership actions may be perceived as unfair, especially when there aren’t clear norms, objectives and roles. Fostering open dialogue can help mitigate this, in addition to being honest. Providing opportunities for individuals to voice their opinions and providing clarity about objectives and intentions will also help reduce perceptions of injustice.

Start small:

Safe-to-fail experiments can help you start small as you practice new ways of leading and relating with the broader organization. Using this approach with the knowledge of the SCARF model should help you establish a supportive and safe environment. Implementing these concepts requires self-awareness and a feedback-rich culture, where leaders actively seek and welcome input to enhance their effectiveness.

Give yourself grace if these are new practices for you. If you want to chat about coaching support on your journey, you know where to find me.

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