How your environment is one of your best leadership assets

As leaders we have an obligation to provide our employees with a safe work environment.  A place that safeguards our people, ensuring they can leave at the end of the day to return to their loved ones.  But how often do we think about the other, often unconsidered safety?  The psychological kind?

In his book Leadership in the Age of Personalization: Why standardization fails in the age of ‘me’, Glenn Llopis sites his survey of more than 14,000 leaders and their employees at a broad range of companies across the US, highlighting that the number one thing employees wanted in order to be their authentic self at work was ‘a safe environment where no-one is judged’. This was twice as important as ‘feeling valued and respected’ and having ‘trust and transparency from their supervisor’.  He also notes that when employees are asked what they think about a problem and are able to safely provide input into the solutions without being judged, they feel incentivised to do more.

Creating a psychologically safe environment

Creating a psychologically safe environment for your team means creating a space that enables people to openly and honestly share their thoughts, views and opinions, without fear of being judged, ridiculed or excluded. This is becom­ing harder and harder as society evolves to becoming more openly judgemental of people. We feel it’s our right to be able to slam people for their views and opinions if they don’t align to ours. When we are put in the position of being on the receiving end of this outrage – or even seeing other peo­ple there – we learn that it isn’t safe to say anything because our reputation, career and status will be put at risk. People are now afraid to say anything for fear of someone becoming outraged. Yet studies completed by Barbara Fredrickson from the University of North Carolina show that when we create psycholog­ically safe environments for our teams to operate in, we see increases in positive emotions and results, we become more open-minded, resilient, motivated and persistent.

Open and constructive debate

Having a diverse array of views and opinions is important to any team because it provides a broad set of perspectives, particularly when decisions need to be made. A 2017 study completed by Forbes concluded that diverse teams make better decisions 87 per cent of the time and make decisions twice as fast with half the meetings. But with diversity comes different views and often conflict.  Ensuring we set up a safe environment to enable teams to have constructive conflict is critical.

  • You can do this by setting the ground rules for debate from the start, such as not making arguments personal, openly assigning a devil’s advocate and establishing rules of engagement. Also understanding how the team responds to conflict through tools such as the Thomas-Kilmann conflict model is a great way for the team to build self- awareness around their individual approach to conflict.

Set clear expectations and consequences

In a 2015 survey completed by US firm Harris Poll of more than 1000 people leaders, 37 per cent found it difficult to provide their people with feedback on their performance. Additionally, approxi­mately 20 per cent found it difficult to give their employees clear directions. As a people leader one of the most important jobs you can do is set clear expectations for your people along with associated conse­quences. Clear and concise expectations provide you with something to measure performance against. As Gallup research from 2018 highlights, when you create this clarity for your people, they are eight times more likely to be engaged.  When we have psychologically safe environments these conversations are easier to have and hear.

  • Taking the time to understand what it is that you want your people to achieve enables you to communicate it clearly. If you don’t know yourself, you can’t expect anyone else to know. You can also set out priorities using tools like the SMART model of goal setting (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely). This is a great model because it provides you with an easy framework and structure. And please, hold your people accountable if they don’t deliver. A Gallup poll from 2019 showed that 86 per cent of respondents were not inspired to improve performance by their performance review. If people don’t expect to be held accountable, why would they want to do any better? When people expect accountability, they know they need to deliver.

By creating a safe environment for your people to work in, you will see improvements in creativity, performance and accountability. Your people will feel comfort­able to speak up and say what they think without fear of being judged, ridiculed or criticised. Performance and accountability also increases because your people know what’s expected and by when.  Putting time into this up-front will set you and your team up in an environment of success.

Wendy Born helps leaders maximise their talent and strengths to achieve extraordinary results. As an engaging facilitator, coach and speaker, she works with executives, senior leaders and leadership teams to create high-performance organisations. She is the author of Raising Leaders and The Languages of Leadership, both published by Major Street. Find out more at