For Leaders, Soft is the New Strong

By: Rachel Mendelowitz

An exploration of why the concept of psychological safety is just now catching on in the business world.

An article by Charles Duhigg in The New York Times made waves in business and leadership circles recently. “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team” seemed very timely, touching on themes that have been gaining traction recently, namely, the increasing relevance of psychological safety in today’s workplace.

The article was an excellent read, but I was quite surprised nonetheless to see how popular it became — I had over a dozen people send it to me as a “must read.” To be more specific: I wasn’t surprised by how interesting the topic was — I was surprised at how many business leaders it resonated with.

As any student of organizational psychology could tell you, the topic of psychological safety is hardly new; in fact, psych safety has been established as one of, if not the, strongest predictor of team success in recent years.

This makes intuitive sense. Psychological safety describes a teams’ willingness to take interpersonal risks — to make mistakes and learn from one another. It requires high levels of respect and acceptance between team members. And it results in high performance, innovation, and engagement. An environment of psychological safety has more of an impact on team performance than any single high performing member or any combination of high performers. In other words, to improve team performance your time is better spent fostering the right dynamic than it is spent evaluating and rearranging members of teams.

Despite its credibility in academic circles, attempts to create a culture of psychological safety in the private sector have been met with resistance.

Refusing to be soft

My experience in business environments (namely in consulting clients on the development, and application of leadership development, change management, and talent management solutions), I’ve found that my team and I have had to tip-toe around the concept in order to be more effective.

Whenever introducing psych safety to clients, we change the name to something more innocuous, such as “creating a feedback rich culture” or “building a learning organization,” because we are bluntly told that the term “psychological safety” is too soft and the notion will be rejected outright. Moreover, I believe that feedback is well founded. After consistently negative reactions to the term, I now start conversations on the topic with a disclaimer, “Of course we won’t use the academic term to describe this concept.” By which I mean, we won’t overtly talk about our inner lives and we certainly won’t talk about positive feelings to a group of men and women who consider themselves cultural warriors.

Yet, it’s been well established that many executives consider “soft skills” to be the source of the biggest gap among leaders. Despite this glaring gap, in practice there has been tremendous pushback to even hearing about a “soft” concept, much less implementing it or working towards it.

But now what seems to be a good practice has in fact been verified by hard data. As Duhigg recounts, Google’s data indicated that psychological safety was most critical to building effective teams. Furthermore, as Duhigg states:

“the paradox, of course, is that Google’s intense data collection and number crunching have led it to the same conclusions that good managers have always known. In the best teams, members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs.”

In short, this isn’t a new revelation. Good managers have intuited this on their own, while organizational psychologists and human capital consultants have made the case for psych safety up and down the boardrooms of America.

Why has such an intuitive concept faced so much resistance? Why did it take a study by Google to popularize a decades old concept? Why are we so afraid to be “soft” and “safe”? Psych safety is one of our biggest levers for increased effectiveness in teams, yet many managers seem reticent to pull on it.

The answer lies in our outdated leadership styles and the environments we have created at work. Our leadership norms focus on power and control as a means to high performance. In such and environment, it is only natural that “psychological” and “safety” are seen as synonymous for “emotional” or “weak”.

In an environment where fear, rather than safety, is the primary tool used to motivate workers, you will likely get what you ask for. But you will be missing out on everything your people have to offer on the things that you did not specifically ask for.

In short, many employees do not feel psychologically safe enough to innovate, take risks, or point out potential issues. This has massive effects, on everything from struggles to maintain innovation to corporate cultures that allow issues to snowball out of control (see the recent GM ignition crisis or the VW emissions scandal as examples at scale). Not only does this create a negative culture, lowering morale, decreasing engagement, and increasing turnover, but it also affects the bottom line.

Why it’s catching on now

The topic is particularly resonant now because in today’s dynamic environment, collaboration, teamwork, learning, and innovation have become ever more important. Nearly every article across our newsfeeds tackles these themes in some way; whether it’s networked, complex, teaming, dynamic, or emergent, there are many buzzwords getting at the same phenomenon — we can feel that our world has changed, and that the way we work must change with it.

And it’s not just what we intuit anymore — a recent HBR study has backed this up with evidence, finding that time spent on collaboration really has increased by more than 50 percent over the past two decades.

Now that we’re moving towards accepting the realities of our networked and collaborative world, we are increasingly looking to new solutions: forming and unforming teams, building internal networks, targeting employee engagement, or improving the productivity of collaboration.

Creating an environment marked by psych safety is increasingly recognized as an effective tool to tackle these challenges we face, and as such, it’s shedding the stigma and gaining steam.

How to build psych safety

But now that psych safety is finally resonating with leaders, how do we move past buzzwords and actually go about building it within our own teams?

Part of the reason establishing psych safety is so essential to building effective teams is that it creates a virtuous cycle. If individuals are vulnerable and the team reacts with support, psych safety builds. If the team reacts with ridicule, the individual becomes guarded, and psych safety degrades.

Thus, developing individual vulnerability and cultivating a supportive team environment are key pillars in the effort to build psych safety. The pair is an inseparable duo; individual vulnerability requires group support and group support requires individual vulnerability in order to create an environment that is psychologically safe.

While no one large organization can achieve complete psychological safety, teams can use these tools to make a difference in their own environments, building groups that are more likely to have improved morale, higher levels of innovation, and hopefully leaders that aren’t afraid to be soft or vulnerable.

What’s most interesting is that this is really challenging. It requires self-control, discipline, courage, patience, wisdom, leadership — all things we associate with strength. If we can flip our mental models to reflect this, we can stop being afraid, and can start on the hard work of creating the right environments for our teams to thrive.

Rachel Mendelowitz is an organizational psychology expert and managing partner at McChrystal Group, an elite advisory services firm where she leads the internal product development and research team. She and her team conduct original research, develop new products, and consult on performance management and leadership development solutions. She received her Master of Arts in Social-Organizational Psychology from Columbia University, with a concentration in organizational change and consultation.