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How Leaders Fake Psychological Safety and What to Do About It


Psychological safety is a critical component of high-performing teams and organizations. When employees feel psychologically safe, they are more willing to take risks, share ideas, ask questions, admit mistakes, and engage in difficult conversations—all behaviors that drive innovation and performance (Edmondson, 2018). However, despite its importance, leaders sometimes unwittingly cultivate an environment where employees feel pressure to appear psychologically safe rather than actually experiencing it. This "fakery" undermines the very benefits psychological safety aims to provide.


Today we will explore how leaders can inadvertently encourage employees to fake psychological safety and recommend practical strategies leaders can adopt to build genuine psychological safety.


Behaviors that Signal Psychological Safety is Lacking


Employees will sometimes fake behaviors associated with psychological safety when the true climate does not support risk-taking and vulnerability. This section outlines some key behaviors that could indicate psychological safety is being faked rather than genuinely experienced (Schein and Schein, 2016; Edmondson, 2018):


  • Superficial questions and comments - Employees may ask surface-level questions or make bland observational comments rather than probing questions that could lead to failure or conflict.

  • Lack of disagreement - Teams avoid or gloss over disagreements and different perspectives rather than truly debating alternatives.

  • Private concerns - Employees only privately express concerns, fears, or doubts rather than raising them in meetings or with leaders.

  • Quick agreeing and moving on - Teams move on from issues too quickly without resolving underlying tensions or conflicts to avoid difficulty.

  • Self-censoring - Employees sensor their own ideas and suggestions rather than freely sharing both successes and failures.


These "fake it till you make it" behaviors allow employees to give the appearance of an innovative, learning culture while sidestepping the vulnerability that true psychological safety requires. However, over time they erode the trust and shared understanding necessary for high performance.


How Leadership Can Inadvertently Encourage Fakery


Leaders play a key role in establishing the conditions for genuine psychological safety or inadvertently encouraging a climate where it is faked. Three common leadership pitfalls are:


  • Performance Obsession: Leaders obsessed with targets, metrics and deliverables send the message that anything but flawless execution is unacceptable (Schein and Schein, 2016). This incentivizes hiding failures and problems rather than surfacing them to drive improvement. To build trust, leaders must demonstrate that learning from mistakes or unlearning old ways is as valued as current performance.

  • Preference for Positive Messages: Leaders wanting to hear good news create pressure to only share positive updates and successes (Edmondson, 2018). This stifles open discussions of challenges, trade-offs and failures needed for innovation. Authentic debate requires leaders to actively solicit full transparency, even about uncomfortable issues.

  • Lack of Follow-Through on Issues Raised: When employees do take risks to raise concerns but see no changes result, it teaches them such input is unwelcome or pointless (Liberman and Yakob, 2018). To sustain psychological safety, leaders must both encourage voicing of all perspectives and demonstrate through action that input has impact on decisions and priorities.

These well-intentioned but misguided leadership behaviors inadvertently cultivate a climate where the appearance of psychological safety matters more than the reality. The next section covers practical steps leaders can take to build authentic psychological safety.


Strategies for Leaders to Build Genuine Psychological Safety


Cultivating an environment where employees feel truly free to take risks, learn through mistakes, debate alternatives and challenge one another requires intentional effort by leaders. This section details actionable strategies leaders can adopt:


  • Model Vulnerability Through Own Mistakes: Leaders must reinforce that psychological safety extends to the top if they want it for the whole organization (Schein and Schein, 2016). This means openly sharing past errors, unlearning old ways of thinking, and acknowledging weaknesses - not just projecting flawless competence. Visible fallibility and learning is reassuring for others.

  • Emphasize Learning Over Blaming: When failures or problems surface, the focus should be on understanding what was learned rather than finding fault (Edmonson, 2018; Liberman and Yakob, 2018). Post-mortems seek root causes, not scapegoats. Mistakes are seen as opportunities, not liabilities, signaling it is safe to be honest about issues without fear of reprisal.

  • Actively Solicit Diverse Views and Debates: Rather than just making requests for input, leaders should directly engage with employees across levels and functions to get varied perspectives, especially those dissenting from the prevailing view (Edmonson, 2018; Schein and Schein, 2016). This shows all input is equally valued.

  • Provide Timely, Transparent Feedback on Input: Leaders must routinely communicate back to the whole team how employee input informed decisions, priorities and actions taken - being candid about conflicts, trade-offs and what could not be implemented (Liberman and Yakob, 2018; Duhigg, 2016). This closes the feedback loop and incentives further vulnerability.

  • Reinforce Psychological Safety Norms: Leaders can adopt group agreements and norms to reinforce behaviors like active listening, constructive debate and separating the person from the problem (Liberman and Yakob, 2018; Edmonson, 2018). Regular reminders remind all that it is safe to disagree and push the team out of its comfort zone.


The following case study provides an example of how one leader implemented these strategies to shift from a climate of faked psychological safety to authentic vulnerability and learning.


Case Study: Building Genuine Psychological Safety at Innovatech


Innovatech is a mid-sized technology company that historically emphasized quick results over experimentation. When James took over as division head, he suspected the climate did not truly support open-feedback and risk-taking needed for innovation. Employees avoided difficult conversations and quickly reached consensus without debate.


James began by sharing his own career mistakes and lessons learned publicly with his team in town halls. His openness broke down barriers for others to also be candid. He shifted team meetings from status updates to open-forum debates on alternative strategies. To encourage dissenting views, James held one-on-one "devil's advocate" sessions focused on unpopular ideas.


When product issues arose, James directed post-mortems to find root causes rather than blame. He communicated back to the whole organization frequently about how employee suggestions shaped priorities and addressed team member concerns. James also introduced group agreements to separate opinions from individuals.


Over 18 months, James observed deeper debates, more honest two-way feedback between levels, and riskier experiments being proposed without fear of failure. By modeling vulnerability himself and emphasizing learning over fault-finding, he transformed Innovatech's climate from superficial agreement to genuine openness and innovation.


Conclusion


While appearing psychologically safe is easier than the vulnerability required for true safety, it deprives organizations of the substantial benefits of honest transparency, debates of diverse perspectives, and learning from mistakes. Leaders play a pivotal role in either cultivating or stifling psychological safety through their behaviors and priorities. By consistently emphasizing learning over blaming, visibly incorporating all input into decisions, and modeling their own willingness to be fallible, leaders can shift their teams from a climate of faked safety to one of authentic openness, debate and continuous improvement. This transformation unlocks the innovative potential of empowered employees willing to take risks without fear.


References


  • Duhigg, C. (2016). What Google learned from its quest to build the perfect team. New York Times Magazine, 26.

  • Edmondson, A. (2018). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), 350-383.

  • Liberman, N., & Yakob, E. (2018). Leaders are from Mars, followers are from Venus: The causal effect of psychological distance on team performance. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 145, 1-13.

  • Schein, E. H., & Schein, P. (2016). Organizational culture and leadership (5th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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