OHS Canada Magazine

How leadership behaviours facilitate psychologically safe workplaces

March 3, 2023
By Bill Howatt and Troy Winters
Health & Safety Human Resources Mental Health Psychological Safety

Photo: Adobe Stock

Leaders must understand psychologically safe workplaces and learn how their behaviours can be protective or hazardous factors to their employees.

A psychologically safe workplace is one where employees and leaders have developed habits to create a culture and environment where workers:

  • Feel welcomed, accepted, and included.
  • Know that making mistakes is OK; they are accountable for their behaviour and expected to learn from mistakes.
  • Understand how the employer values their contribution.
  • Are comfortable challenging the status quo without fear of negative consequences.

Psychologically safe cultures are created when employers know the psychosocial risk factors and hazards employees experience and what protective factors can mitigate harm and promote mental health. They are not created by implementing random programs such as EFAP that are thought to promote workers’ well-being.

Employers must be clear about what key performance behaviours (KPBs) they expect all leaders to focus on to the point of becoming habits. KPBs are the ways leaders act or conduct themselves, especially toward others. Direct leaders’ upbeat attitudes about their work are protective factors that can positively impact employees’ experience at work each day.

Leaders interested in becoming psychologically safe must be open to learning how their reports perceive how they react and behave under pressure. They must be aware of behaviours that move them toward employees by listening without judgment or away by being judgmental and using aggressive non-verbals. Leaders can obtain objective feedback through employee surveys like the Workplace Psychological Safety Assessment, 360 feedback assessments, performance reviews, and employee and peer feedback.


Behaviours that indicate a safe workplace

There is no universal core competency profile for creating a psychologically safe workplace. However, the literature suggests that critical behaviours can increase the degree to which employees feel safe and trust their leaders. Empathy (the absence of judgment and a willingness to listen to employees’ experiences) is a KPB that can help employees feel safe.

Conley and Blanchard suggest that empathy means “understanding your people, relating to what they may be going through, understanding their needs, and then working to meet their needs.” The authors of Measuring Performance Results and Behaviors suggest that core competencies are a leader’s habits that are positive signs they are on track to facilitating a psychologically safe workplace.

Following are examples of KPBs that can help managers and supervisors become psychologically safe leaders. Leaders do not need to take a leadership course to follow these KPGs. They need to make a commitment and work with their direct reports on setting out their intentions and checking with employees to determine what they are doing is working.

KPB self-evaluation

Complete the following KPB self-evaluation. On a scale of one (low) to five (high), rate your confidence that your direct reports believe you:

  1. Support team members on all assigned projects, functions, and tasks to be successful.
  2. Care about their well-being and mental health.
  3. Are committed to helping team members reach their professional goals.
  4. Know each team member personally and have developed a trusted relationship.
  5. Help every employee set boundaries to balance the demands of work and life.
  6. Are present when they speak in meetings or one-on-one and not distracted (e.g., constantly checking email or texts).
  7. Ask more questions than make statements when communicating.
  8. Are aware of non-verbal communications and their impact on employees’ experiences.
  9. Practice inclusivity by equally asking for all team members’ opinions, input, and suggestions.
  10. Ensure all employees know their assigned priorities, expectations, and goals.

The higher your confidence, the more likely you think you are a psychologically safe leader. Now, test your assumptions. One test is your confidence in asking your team to score you and how safe they feel answering.

KPBs focus on what and how leaders get results with their teams. Results are important, and so is creating a psychologically safe workplace. Psychologically safe leadership is not about employees doing whatever they want and not being held accountable for their performance or behaviours. It is about being clear on how leaders hold themselves and employees responsible for their behaviours without causing harm. Leaders must acknowledge that no one is perfect, mistakes happen, and learning is a part of the process, even though it can be inconvenient.

Employers and leaders must know that leadership training is helpful, but so is defining the KPBs all leaders are expected to focus on and make habits. The above KPBs are examples of how simple it can be to pick and define behaviours. One way is to study what highly-engaged groups in your organization are doing and compare them to lower-engaged groups.

For leaders to facilitate psychological safety, they must want their workers to be clear on the KPBs expected and valued. The more employees feel psychologically safe, welcomed, and valued, the more likely they will want to come to work each day to do their best work and want to stay.

Dr. Bill Howatt is the Ottawa-based president of Howatt HR Consulting.


Troy Winters is a senior health and safety officer at the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) in Ottawa.


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