How to Balance Psychological Safety and Accountability

how to balance psychological safety and accountability

Have you ever been on a team where you felt like you were walking on eggshells? Anytime you had even the slightest suspicion that you might have made a mistake, you felt your stomach clench and your heart rate double? Yeah, me too. The unfortunate reality is that more and more employees currently work in an environment where they feel this way on a semi-regular or regular basis. The effects are increased anxiety leading to decreased productivity, decrease in communication with leadership, increased absenteeism, and turnover. In other words, it spells death for that work team.

Psychological Safety in the Workplace

These teams usually exist as a byproduct of their leader. Whether the leader is directly causing the anxiety and tension, allowing team members to bicker and sabotage, or simply allowing their employees to flounder in the stresses of their job, the result is the same: A place where people don’t want to work. In comes the topic of psychological safety. The data is clear that teams function better when there is a mutual feeling of security and respect in the workplace. I mean it makes sense, right? When you feel safety and security, your anxiety levels drop, your blood pressure decreases, you’re able to think and process more clearly, you communicate better with those around you, and you’re more open to feedback. It’s kind of the perfect scenario.

When Psychological Safety Backfires

To leaders, the message is pretty clear: make your employees feel safe at work, and your team will be better. And most of them strive to do that very thing. I happen to truly believe that most leaders have the best intentions. They want the best for their company and the people who work for them. I think the reason many leaders fail is that they fail to find the proper balance with their teams. Not unlike food, medicine and money, too much safety in the workplace is no longer an asset, but a liability.

Finding the Balance

To truly create a stellar team, leaders need to find the right combination of psychological safety and accountability. It’s not enough to make them feel safe at work, but to keep them engaged and producing at the level they are capable of, they need to be expected to perform. Here are some ways we can do that.

Expect Excellence, But Reward Effort

It’s okay to expect a lot of our employees. In fact, it’s our job. And it’s their job to be a productive member of the team. Where some managers fail, is they overlook the second part of this advice, which is to reward effort. At their core, employees want to do a great job and to be respected and valued by their leaders. But they don’t become rockstars overnight. It takes time. They’re going to try and fail, probably quite a bit. And that’s okay. It’s part of their professional journey. That’s where the leader’s rewards system comes into play.

When employees try and fail at something, we need to make sure we’re focusing on what’s really important: the effort. They are trying and they made a mistake. It happens. And they should be recognized for making the effort. And it’s a perfect opportunity for a coaching session where the leader can help the employee debrief what went wrong. What steps could they have done differently? Was there a step they missed? How did this outcome effect other business groups? These are all valuable lessons that will help the employee grow, and likely will help them do it better the next time.

Trust Them

This is often the hardest thing that a leader has to do. Think about it, they probably got to where they are by being really good at the position below them. So they already know how to do everything their employees are doing, at a high level. And now they’re expected to stand back and let others do the work on their own? Yep! This is a natural pitfall for leaders, especially new ones. They miss opportunities to trust their employees, and end up jumping in and doing the work on their own. When actually, this is a prime opportunity for development.

Trust your employees to do the job you trained them for. Trust them to come to you if and when they need you. Trust them enough to be creative and suggest alternative ways to do tasks. They just might surprise you and come up with some great ideas that will make things run smoother. Trust them enough to let them try things and fail once in a while. And when they do, be ready to reward the effort, and coach them on how they could do it better next time.

Offer Support, Not a Crutch

When taken to excess, psychological safety becomes a crutch that can stifle performance and creativity. Leaders need to resist the urge to make their employees too safe. Because don’t forget, they still have a job to do. And they need to earn it for themselves. It’s not up to the leader to make them successful. It’s up to the leader to create the proper support system so that employees can make themselves successful.

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Keith Enochs

Keith Enochs

Keith Enochs is an HR-Training Manager in Lancaster, PA. He is also a blogger in the areas of leadership, communication, and culture. He is the founder of WorkingTitleHR. Find him on Twitter and Linkedin.

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  1. AvatarRachel says

    Keith, thanks for writing this! The topic of psychological safety is something I’ve been really come to understand and appreciate since I joined my current company, Lessonly. One of our values is to have difficult conversations. I think when these types of conversations are done well it fosters psychological safety but also provides that balance that you highlighted. Like you said—employees need to feel safe, but they also need to be expected to perform. I feel that open and honest feedback through difficult conversations keeps everyone on the same page from a performance standpoint. Thanks for being an advocate of such an important topic!

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