Psychological Safety For Leaders - Practical Advice For The Management Team Lead a.k.a The CEO

I believe the lack of Psychological Safety at the top is the root of all organizational evil we see in the vast majority of organisations. That impostor syndrome, risk aversion, fear, dread and stagnation are running rampant amongst C-suite and until we resolve that it’s not going to be sufficient that we work on Psychological Safety for developer teams or that we try to make real mentality and cultural changes in organizations. 


The higher up you go in an organization the more leaders think of teams as structures that are executional and typically in the layers beneath them. This is part of the reason why, at the very top levels there is no talk or expectation of Psychological Safety.


In many ways this is not surprising at all as it requires so much vulnerability, trust in yourself and others, perceived reputational and financial risk, a thirst for learning and growth.


In fact, if you Google “Psychological Safety for Leaders” nothing comes up. A shocking discovery as the term in itself is widely acknowledged in any other type of team that wants to be fast and productive. 


I think a Chief Exec should be little else than a Team Leader or Product Owner or even Project Manager or Scrum Master of their leadership team. If he chose them correctly and can ensure they are truly valuable and their hearts are in the right place (which admittedly are big IFs worth extreme measures to attain), little else is more important than ensuring they really are a team and they are a secure, thriving one. 


As many of our clients asked us for it, here's some practical advice for the Superhero CEO clued in enough to have tested and found their management team is far from psychologically safe:


Reignite Purpose 

  • Spend disgusting amounts of time discussing mission again and painting a picture of the future that has them excited and reinvested;

  • Use the power of “Pay it forward” - set up a culture of mentorship. In lieu of the handful of favourites each CxO has, have leadership offer mentoring to several employees say one new hire, one problematic leader and a randomly chosen other one and show what they’ve changed by that direct contact and advice;

Change The Narrative 

  • Less BAU more New - Change the focus by ensuring what is rewarded is directly relating to new and innovative not accomplishing P&L connected results - point out (not sanction) when what is accomplished is trivial and/or hygienic only;

  • Leaders’ Book Club - if you’re meeting your leadership team once a month or once a trimester (hopefully for sprint kick-offs:) have them mention a book to read that they found inspiring each time and update on the blogs they follow - learning together increases closeness - the beautiful minds of your execs are a terrible thing to waste and as a top mind told me the other day - it’s astonishing to see that at the top no one reads anymore;

Make Them Feel Safe

  • “Leadership Truth or Dare” - the equivalent in a less formalised form and maybe over monthly dinners (if you don’t have those with your core team get them!) and not around the boardroom but encourage your team to constantly open up with new and personal tidbits or to act as silly as they would if they were out socially at a pub with their best mates;

  • Encourage them to grow their own brand and build their own hero stories - you want your leaders so valuable they absolutely do not fear mobility but they choose to stay with you and recommit to the purpose every morning - make sure they build a voice in your industry, encourage them to write and speak and become influencers it always pays off. Even leaders on their last career leg will find value in building a publicly visible hero narrative so ensure they do that;

  • Agile management sprints - If you’re not doing this already in your leadership team this is the number one change lever you can introduce today. Break down the yearly objectives into a backlog and set up epics and sprints and then get your team team to grab from the pile irrespective of their department - why shouldn’t your CRO help with the digital transformation or your CTO sort an HR restructure if they have the willingness and resources? If nothing else, by doing some form of Agile in your leadership team, you quickly show them that rapid experimentation and collaboration is possible and with no disastrous consequences is possible and that failure is intrinsically connected to progress;

Lastly does your management team however you define it have a WhatsApp group? (Or Slack channel, daily bloated email list, Intranet group, Workplace space, or Twitter DM - the incarnation is irrelevant) is there a space where dialogue between all of you is meant to be open and continuous? If not, get one today. And if yes, keep an eye out for who stops ever coming back to kids and sporting results and take it as a sign that they may have stopped feeling psychologically secure enough to be open.


Your managers, your leaders, your CxOs - the top structures of your company are made up of people with immense talent, great IQ and who were once in love with the purpose of what they were building. You’re getting none of that today but instead a half hostile, fearful, under-utilised, overly-consumed-with-politics-and-numbers set of checked-out disparate entities - the opposite of a real team. 


If you can reignite their initial spark, if you can get them to renew their vows with you, if you can reassure them that they are safe to experiment and grow together as a team, if you can help them move fast, use their EQ and be brave, knowledgeable and passionate once more - then you have a Psychologically Safe management team and should be in with a good chance of making great things move from "Doing" to "DONE!".

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