How Successful Leaders Can Create Psychological Safety in the Workplace

May 21, 2019 | Darrah Pilieri, APR

I traveled to Dublin, Ireland, to represent my public relations firm at the 2019 IPREX Global Leadership Conference (GLC). IPREX is a global network of communication agencies working across the spectrum of industry sectors and practice disciplines; AKCG is IPREX’s sole Philadelphia-area office. Each year, IPREX hosts the GLC to discuss client and firm business strategies and best practices. The GLC is a great opportunity for emerging public relations leaders to work together to help solve problems and issues faced by independent agencies.
Hosted by our partner agency in Dublin, Walsh:PR, the GLC workshops armed me with tools and PR resources to help me grow as a leader. More specifically, during the “Leadership Workshop” session, presented by Mark Seabright and Raul Aparici of In the Moment, we learned about the different types of leaders and managers, the importance of agency culture and how to remain resilient in the ever-changing field of public relations. Throughout the robust conference-session schedule, my biggest takeaway was defining something I have already implemented with my team. However, I didn’t know it had a name – psychological safety.
According to Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, who coined the term, “Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”

“Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”

At our public relations firm, we strive to foster a culture that allows for personal risk taking, which enables each colleague to show one’s self as they are and feel accepted and respected. Since I attended the 2018 GLC in Chicago – and as I have continued to grow as a leader – it has become clear to me my leadership style is helping provide a safe space. I ensure my team feels comfortable to share personal life struggles without fear of negative consequences.

Because group dynamics can motivate and mobilize individuals, I work hard to understand my colleagues’ personalities, strengths and struggles to anticipate the potential impacts – whether positive or negative – they can have on the firm’s collective culture. People have vital human needs to be seen, paid attention to and feel needed. It is important for leaders to embrace the emotional aspect of business, because we are, in fact, people. To develop a psychologically safe environment for your colleagues, it is imperative to be flexible and authentic.

Mark and Raul indicated that when we trust our colleagues, we expect others to behave positively toward us, which allows colleagues to tolerate vulnerability and uncertainty. This ultimately can lead to individuals working better together and staying focused on team goals. When a team does not have a psychologically safe and trustworthy environment, Mark and Raul say, individuals may be more suspicious of how others may act, which initiates a defensive and insecure posture.

Leadership is something you can take on for yourself, but it also can be given to others. As a leader in our firm who works hard to cultivate the psychologically safe environment for my colleagues, I believe I am helping to empower them and stretch them to be the best professional version of themselves.

I can further implement this environment because this agency culture existed before I joined the team. The framework and foundation of psychological safety has given me the ability to propel and fast-track my career. They have helped me understand the importance of creating a space that encourages the team to bring their A-game to work every day. By doing this, I can help make a transformational difference to the growth of our public relations firm.

As with anything, some people are more adept at leadership than others. However, each person in a leadership position can leverage these fundamentals to benefit their team.