Leadership Style and Psychological Safety: Moving From Fear to Innovation
We begin 2021 somewhat in the same manner we ended 2020, but with a hopefully considerable, and probably cautious, level of hope that somehow the business environment will begin to phase back to an understandable new normal in the months to come. Our recent past articles have been mostly discussions on the challenges the pandemic has presented for assuring business continuity in a remote working environment. We've also shared our thoughts about the need for companies to pivot and for leaders to adjust in order to meet the challenges of the current corporate reality. In this article, we offer some thoughts about leadership style and psychological safety, and how this combination has become increasingly relevant to organizational culture.
The November/December Harvard Business Review included an article about how leaders can and must develop their leadership style over time and with changes in the greater work environment:
“A great leadership style can make people appear more competent than they truly are, and a poor style can drag down a superior skill set.” (How to Develop Your Leadership Style, Suzanne J. Peterson, Robin Abramson, R.K. Stutman; HBR, Nov/Dec 2020)
Style must be distinct from personality. While personality is who one is at their core, style is best described by what one does or how one acts before others. According to the research conducted by Peterson, Abramson and Stutman, “the signals we send to others about our status — or lack thereof — fall into two categories: power and attractiveness. Both sets of markers are basically “neutral;” neither set of markers is inherently good or bad. That being said, expressions of confidence, competence, charisma and influence are powerful markers. Yet in the same way, so are arrogance, abrasiveness and intimidation. “Attractiveness markers” are related to expressions of agreeableness, approachability and likability; while other markers reflect diffidence, lack of confidence and submissiveness.
We all have our natural style. In fact, we tend to fall into one of five specific categories of natural style: powerful, lean powerful, blended, lean attractive, and attractive. Most of us favor one or more of these; however, when someone exhibits a more blended style, these individuals are set apart by having presence.
“Leaders who are praised for their polish and gravitas have a deft ability to adopt the right markers to suit the situation.” (HBR, Nov/Dec 2020.).
In other words, the most effective leaders are those who can read a situation and adjust their style to meet the demands of the current interaction/situation (reading a style; look at this as an evolution of “situational leadership”). Some leaders develop or create a blended style and thus are considered naturals. These leaders stand out while others struggle to move up the ladder and learn to modify behavior without being able to make a change to their leadership style DNA. The learning curve can be steep, but the struggle is worthwhile. And if one fails, she/he could actually perpetuate an unproductive culture and work environment. To overcome this, a leader must be self-aware and recognize their own weaknesses or “lacks” on the leadership style spectrum. Understanding various leadership markers is key to being able to adjust one’s most inherent style, whether in a situation or overall. Being able to “read the room” is critical.
“Executives make a common mistake by using power markers with subordinates and attractive markers with higher-ups. The opposite approach is often more effective. Lean powerful with more senior people, and lean attractive when talking to more junior people. (HBR, Nov/Dec. 2020)
To summarize, the best leaders understand their fundamental style and are able to assess situations and interactions where there's a need to adjust behavior accordingly. This seems obvious; however, we posit it is very difficult for some leaders to do, especially in the stressful and highly charged environments we live in today. The challenges of managing and leading in the current business environment, in particular with the move to remote working, makes it even more critical that leaders be able to pivot, adapt their style, and take inventory of their own strengths and shortcomings, or “markers.”
In a recent piece by Timothy R. Clark (“The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety”), the author offers a fairly simple but compelling argument, borrowing from Maslo’s Hiearchy. Clark posits: “I’ve discovered that psychological safety follows a progression based on the natural sequence of human needs. First, human beings want to be included. Second, they want to learn. Third, they want to contribute. And finally, they want to challenge the status quo when they believe things need to change.” Building on this, Clark argues that there are four stages of psychological safety: Inclusion Safety, Learner Safety, Contributor Safety and Challenger Safety. These are sequential in the same manner as Maslo’s Hierachy of Needs in that inclusion is the base level of need and leads to an evolution that includes safety needs with learner, contributor and challenger following, in that order.
- Inclusion Safety is, at heart, the respect for the humanity of an individual. Understanding that including another human being in any discussion or project should be an act of pre-judgment based on that person’s worth, not an act of judgment based on that person’s worthiness. In other words, Clark focuses on understanding the differences in people and being empathetic to their varying needs as well as the needs of the project or piece of work.
- Learner Safety is based around providing an environment where people are free to learn and are not punished for failure but, rather, encouraged to keep trying or striving. Leadership, thereby, recognizes the need for risk and creates an environment where people are allowed to learn from failure. (For even further reference to this concept, see "High Flyers" by Morgan McCall.)
- Contributor Safety depends on a truly collaborative environment. Being heavy-handed or didactic negates contributor safety and stifles collaboration and creativity.
- Challenger Safety leads to innovation. According to Clark, the key to resilience and renewal is the ongoing ability of an organization to learn and adapt. Leaders must stand first in line to model the benefits of developing patterns of learning agility. “Leaders will increasingly earn competence through their ability to learn and adapt rather than depending on their current knowledge and skills.”
According to Clark, this sequence of safety needs contributes to developing the most effective leadership and environments where people feel recognized, supported, and are encouraged to learn and innovate. In these environments, people truly feel that they're appreciated and success is defined as maximum contribution. It only follows that the absence of these safety needs will lead to a culture where there's a lack of innovation and growth, and where fear is the driver of the work. Fear, therefore, negates the ability to succeed, stifles the culture and diminishes results
Leadership and Safety
In summary, leaders must adjust their natural styles to meet the needs of organizational situations — what is happening and understanding the competencies of those involved at that time. They must be able to “read the room” and pivot, maximize the moment, and see every “teachable moment” for what it is and how it can be used. Creating environments that provide safety is also key. Understanding the human needs of others is essential, as is creating an environment where learning is celebrated and where people feel they're making a contribution. Allowing creativity and innovation will lead to more successful and healthier organizations. The absence of this can lead to fearful cultures that ultimately fail.
We've written this before: leadership is hard and comes with immense responsibility. Understanding this leads to self-awareness and, hopefully, changes not only in the perception of leadership, but the levels at which thought leadership and action occur. It's up to leaders to push organizational thinking and, in this time of immense change and uncertainty, to keep this front of mind..
Frederick Lamster is the managing director at ZRG Partners, a progressive midsized global executive search firm that uses a proven, data-driven approach. Sharon Tunstall is chief human resources officer at Empower Media Agency, an advertising and marketing agency.
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