Today’s organizations face great challenges of surviving and developing under dynamic market and competitive conditions. External factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic pose new challenges and additional uncertainty to organizations, which lead to greater anxiety among the workforce regarding one’s own job security and future career. Leadership is of crucial importance to foster commitment, innovation and sustainable corporate success, especially in times of fear, uncertainty and change. Accordingly, one of the key tasks of leadership is to create a fearless organization, one in which employees feel safe to contribute and try out new ideas, which in turn can be crucial for the future success of the organization. In her dissertation, Anna-Christina Leisin-Strecker shows how leaders can promote psychological safety at work.

Making Psychological Safety a Top Priority – like Google
Especially in turbulent times, many leaders often do not take the time to deal with topics such as leadership and culture. Because many leaders are faced with great challenges of successfully operating and optimizing existing business models, as well as being asked to cut costs and consequently often to cut umpteen jobs. On the other hand, leaders should build new digital business models and experiment with new ideas to generate innovations. However, these challenges require a fearless organization as employees tend to retreat if they are afraid to lose their jobs. Thus, leadership and culture are becoming increasingly important in turbulent times and must be prioritized- because they can serve as an anchor for the workforce and provide great added value – not only to ensure the company’s competitiveness, but also to take a leading position in the market. Google has realized that ”Psychological Safety” is the most important factor that distinguishes successful teams from less successful teams. Thus, Google has made the development of “Psychological Safety” at work a top priority.

How can leaders influence psychological safety at work?
There is a lack of research on how to influence psychological safety at work. Previous research has mainly focused on the positive relationship between psychological safety and the emergence of positive work outcomes. Accordingly, research has identified that psychological safety can lead to more employee engagement, collaboration, innovation and performance (e.g. Edmondson, 2018; Edmondson & Lei, 2014; Nembhard & Edmondson, 2012). However, scholars have called for more research on the nature of psychological safety, differences in psychological safety and its antecedents (e.g. Edmondson & Lei, 2014; Frazier et al., 2017; Newman et al., 2017). Anna-Christina Leisin-Strecker sought to address these research gaps in her dissertation.

Immersed into a real-life workplace to study psychological safety
Over a period of four years, Anna-Christina Leisin-Strecker had the opportunity to immerse into the context of a German Automobile Manufacturer and its North American subsidiary in order to investigate the research phenomenon psychological safety within her doctoral thesis. During this time, she was able to gain an in-depth understanding of the nature of psychological safety and influencing factors to promote psychological safety at work. First, she conducted a survey to measure the psychological safety strength at the research site. In doing so, she identified intriguing differences between various groups in a team. In addition, during her time in the field, she took part in many events at the German parent company and the North American subsidiary. Furthermore, she held over a hundred interviews with employees and managers to gain an in-depth understanding of factors influencing psychological safety.

Recommendations for action
The findings in Anna-Christina Leisin-Strecker’s dissertation help to better understand how leaders can promote psychological safety at work. Below you will find a subset of recommendations:

1. Communicate a clear vision, common goals and include employees in the process
Ensure to develop and regularly communicate a clear vision and common goals. Include employees in this development process and collaborate on the definition of adequate key performance indicators. This may help to strengthen the ability to take risks and strengthen a ‘we are together’ attitude within your team.

2. Encourage your team to be vulnerable and start with yourself
Encourage your team members to state their opinions, present their ideas and share their knowledge in the team. Communicate your attitude towards mistakes and ensure that mistakes are not held against each other. “Fail fast” is too often not more than just a slogan. Be a role model by admitting own mistakes openly and by dealing with mistakes as a chance for positive development.

3. Empower your team and build your team based on values
Empower you team by clarifying roles and task interdependencies. Try to give your employees responsibility and provide time for creativity. Empower your team through diversity, through the integration of mediators in your team and through value-based recruiting.

More about:
To learn more about the specific insights and recommendations, you can contact: Anna-Christina Leisin-Strecker;
More about her research at the ICI:
More about the topic in the press e.g. New York Times: When Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team and on Youtube:  Building a psychologically safe workplace

The fearless organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth
in:John Wiley & Sons, 2018
(Amy C. Edmondson)

Psychological Safety: The History, Renaissance, and Future of an Interpersonal Construct
in: SSRN (Vol. 1) 2014
(Amy C. Edmondson & Zhike Lei)

Psychological Safety: A Meta-Analytic Review and Extension
in: Personnel Psychology, 2017, 70(1), 113–165
(M. Lance Frazier, Stav Fainshmidt, Ryan L. Klinger, Amir Pezeshkan & Veselina Vracheva)

Psychological safety: A systematic review of the literature
in: Human Resource Management Review, 2017, 27 (3), 521-535
(Alexander Newman, Ross Donohue & Nathan Eva)

Psychological Safety: A Foundation for Speaking Up, Collaboration, and Experimentation in Organizations
in: Kim S. Cameron & Gretchen M. Spreitzer (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship, 2012
(Ingrid M. Nembhard & Amy C. Edmondson)