Supporting leaders to build psychological safety for their people

Friday 21 December 2018, 2:29PM
By Beckie Wright

NZ employees are working in a VUCA world, one that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. This volatility and uncertainty have been shown to negatively impact employee wellbeing, therefore placing a stronger duty of care on organisations to provide a workplace environment that provides psychological safety, and strong leadership for improving the mental health of their people.

Psychological safety has been shown foster teams that are more innovative, an essential skill set for teams operating in a VUCA world where the need to stay agile and adjust to rapid change is key.  How does this process work?

Creating a culture of safety allows people to express opinions, creativity and moderate risk-taking – without the fear that you will be criticised for coming up with an idea that’s out of the box.  There’s also a strong biological and neuropsychological explanation for how psychological safety works. Professor Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina has shown that positive emotions like feeling connected, curiosity, satisfaction, and inspiration broaden the mind and help us build psychological, social, and physical resources. We become more open-minded, resilient, motivated, and persistent when we feel safe. Humour also increases, along with solution-finding and divergent thinking — the cognitive process underlying creativity.

When the workplace feels challenging but not threatening, teams can sustain the broaden-and-build mode and experience all the benefits of the increased resources.

Leaders can directly create this experience of challenge without threat by establishing a foundation of trust. Trust enables us to be appropriately vulnerable and take risks with whatever matters to us, whether that’s our self-image (for example suggesting a different way of tackling a problem) or our wellbeing (letting the team know we’re heading to the gym at lunch even though there’s a project deadline). Researchers Harrison McKnight and Norman Chervany have identified four key factors that people will seek to be confident in before they will trust their leader:

Competence: Can my leader be useful to me in dealing with my difficulties? Can they help?
Benevolence: Does my leader seek to understand and consider my needs and wants?
Predictability: Do I know how my leader will react to my disclosure?
Integrity: Do I know my leader’s values and will they stick to them?

Umbrella works with leaders to support them to demonstrate each of these factors in their everyday interactions with team members and to build an environment where people feel safe to experiment, and show their creativity at work, however they might look for them.

For more information on Umbrella’s leading employee wellbeing support visit the Umbrella Health website today at