Leadership in Action – Creating Psychological Safety

Leadership in Action – Creating Psychological Safety


This is the fourth of five blogs covering the potential workplace triggers that make up the SCARF model (NeuroLeadership Institute). SCARF stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. When one of these is threatened, an amygdala hijack is likely. Today’s focus is Relatedness. When we Energize Action and hold people accountable for their individual and collective performance through clear objectives, effective feedback and coaching we create a strong culture of interdependence and cooperation.

Relatedness is a sense of safety with others through factors like trust and empathy. In the work environment, Relatedness is the bond the staff have with each other, driving collaboration for the accomplishment of shared goals and objectives. As leaders, we can threaten relatedness by driving internal competition for our attention and resources. The use of favoritism creates in-groups and out-groups and sets up the potential for a highly volatile and potentially unethical environment.

Managers inadvertently create in- and out-groups in one of two ways. Traditionally, managers hold the belief that their reports are inherently lazy, and need either financial incentives or a threat of punishment to get them to perform. This philosophy leads to the idea that people are unworthy of trust and need constant supervision. This leader finds the need to micromanage the whole process which disengages the followers’ commitment and energy.

The second way managers threaten psychological safety is the opposite of micromanaging – completely ignoring direct reports. In this case, the manager’s fear of micromanaging causes them to avoid the potential conflict of holding people accountable for their performance. Without a strong sense of accountability within the group, work flows to the competent and the ones who are not productive are ignored. Being ignored is worse than being fired! And not only does this situation create an ineffective disengaged culture, it also creates higher overhead as unproductive people are left on the payroll, with very little to do.

Successful leaders work to build healthy interdependence within their staff that results in collaboration within the department and with other departments. This interdependence comes from a healthy regard for the value each team member brings, as well as an investment into the growth and development of others’ success. In-groups and out-groups are avoided as all team members are expected to perform and be active members of the team. Serious performance issues are dealt with directly and respectfully and not just sidelined. The result is a real, high-functioning team with a shared purpose.

When we Energize Action and hold people accountable for their individual and collective performance, through clear objectives, effective feedback and coaching we enhance Relatedness and create a strong culture of Psychological Safety, interdependence and cooperation.