Article: Role of HR & Leadership in creating psychological safe environment

Strategic HR

Role of HR & Leadership in creating psychological safe environment

In the Part 2 of 'Could a psychologically safe environment be limiting your knowledge sources?', the author tries to see if there is a role of HR and leaders in creating one safe work environment.
Role of HR & Leadership in creating psychological safe environment

In the first part of this article, we drew inferences to prove (by observation) the absence of a correlation between high psychological safety and less innovation. Both psychological safety and innovation (some of which comes from referring to external knowledge sources) are distinct, independent traits of an organization; and, in their own right, are equally important to propel the business forward.

An organization, then, is tasked with a difficult challenge:

To ensure that a sense of psychological safety doesn’t turn into conformity and end up limiting an individual’s sources of information and stifling innovation

A psychologically safe environment can easily be mistaken into something negative. And it requires ‘transformational leadership’ to keep intact the distinction between psychological safety and conformity.


Leaders need to craft a culture that is psychologically safe but not:


A psychologically safe environment is one where people feel free to share ideas divergent from the dominant opinion; whereas a conforming environment is one where people agree to the dominant ideology. Members of a team may feel psychologically safe to share ideas, but they may not always be divergent from the popular opinion which is a subtle sign of conformity if it happens repeatedly.


A psychologically safe environment may lead to an uncultured environment – an environment wherein individuals feel psychologically safe to indulge in ill practices and are not questioned (and in some cases ably backed by the leadership itself). Remember the scenes from The Wolf of Wall Street at Jordan Belfort’s office? The anti-climax to that story is that it is true – to an extent that one may not even believe it. Such a culture is an extreme example, but those stock brokers could not collectively dupe masses and indulge in massive frauds if they weren’t feeling psychologically safe. One doesn’t want the culture to suffer because people feel psychologically safe to indulge in wrong practices – and one certainly doesn’t want a Straton Oakmont of an office.


Researchers Aleksander Ellis and Matthew Pearsall studied multiple teams of students. They gave them an opportunity to cheat in an exam and later studied them. They discovered a startling pattern – the members of the teams that were psychologically safe, felt comfortable to suggest cheating to fellow team members. Ellis and Pearsall, in their research, ‘The effects of ethical orientation and psychological safety on unethical team behaviour’ suggested that psychological safety can incubate unethical behaviour.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a Business Psychology professor, has argued about the negatives that too much diversity can unearth in an organization in his article, “Does Diversity Actually Increase Creativity?” for HBR. The author discourages slow decision-making, disagreements, and lack of implementation of ideas originated because of diversity in the article. The readers’ comments though – circle in on how these traits are not an outcome of having deep-level diversity in the team but having poor management and leadership.  The critics point out, with the right kind of leadership, different ideas can be channelized towards achieving a common organizational goal. And rightly so – ‘transformational leadership’ can boost motivation, creativity, and innovation in teams, research says.

“Transformational leadership moderated cognitive diversity's direct effect on team intrinsic motivation and indirect effect on team creativity via team intrinsic motivation, such that the effects were positive when transformational leadership was high, but negative when transformational leadership was low.” - Cognitive diversity and team creativity: Effects of team intrinsic motivation and transformational leadership

The role of leaders thus becomes of supreme importance in creating an environment which is psychologically safe, doesn’t encourage conformity, and motivates people to share ideas, be creative and innovate. HR’s role becomes crucial in implementing practices which reinforce the values of this desirable culture. Here is what HR can do to foster a psychologically safe and innovative environment:

Teams need to be truly diverse

The most basic requirement of having diversity in the organization is having a workforce from diverse backgrounds. Both achieving and measuring demographic-level diversity is straightforward. The talent acquisition teams in organizations can work on strict mandates and hire to meet demands of their diversity agenda. For instance, Aegis, a global business service provider, has a 6-dimensional approach to having a diverse workforce. The company calls it a hexagonal diversity model and then hire to stay true to this mandate. 

While demographic diversity is attainable, it is deep-level diversity that is difficult to measure or nurture. The next challenge arises in distinguishing between perceived and actual deep-level diversity. HR needs to create mechanisms to measure actual-deep level diversity to have truly diverse teams. For making deep-level diverse workforce inclusive, reward and recognition mechanisms can be designed to recognize individuals who voice opinions challenging the dominant thought to encourage others to do so as well.

From the first principles

While hiring, the interviewer could initiate a discussion on a socio-political issue, and debate the candidate over her ideas. The debate could be used to assess:

  • the rationality of candidate’s arguments
  • the confidence of the candidate on her views, even if they are divergent from the interviewer

A divergence in point of view will help in asserting diversity of thought, and the rationale behind the arguments will help assess the thought process qualitatively. This may collectively hint at whether the candidate has the potential to make the team diverse, bring in quality ideas, and doesn’t shy away from expressing herself even if she doesn’t abide by the popular opinion.

What is deep-level diversity?

Deep-level diversity involves aspects of diversity which are psychological. These are perceived and are more intrinsic than surface-level. These aspects include disparities in personality, attitudes, beliefs, values, and lifestyle (Laio, Chuang, & Joshi, 2008)

 HR needs to create mechanisms to measure actual-deep level diversity to have truly diverse teams.

Institutionalize usage of internal and external knowledge sources

The question that was triggered by the academic research in the first part of the article – “Could psychological safety be limiting one’s knowledge sources, and subsequently limit innovation?” – can have a relatively simpler answer. Getting information from both internal and external source for every project can be made an organization directive and a consistent practice of the same can make it a part of the culture of the organization. 

Look at Ideo’s process of solving business problems. The project team, after deliberating and doing individual and team-level research, goes out in groups to experience the problem at hand, and each group from the team submits its solutions. All of the solutions are discussed, and the best traits from all are combined together to come with the best possible solution. 

Ideo’s approach is proof that a diverse and a psychologically safe team can bring real innovation – and the results are enhanced when the organization’s project management techniques involve including information from both internal and external sources

Check out Ideo’s shopping cart project here

Give individuals a platform to express themselves

An environment which gives people the freedom to say what they want to, without being clouded by a fear of ramifications, is what defines a psychologically safe environment. Writing this on a post-it and nailing on the ‘values’ wall sometimes diminishes it to a mere tokenistic activity, if it is not practiced on the shop-floor. Activities have to be architected where people are given freedom to express themselves without fear of being judged, rebuked, or reprimanded. An HR Technology company, Qustn Technologies, adopts an interesting and unique means to keep its employees engaged and free to express themselves. The company organizes what it calls crib sessions, where people share their complaints about anything and everything. But it doesn’t end there. Listening but not acting can be counter-intuitive – so the policy is to solve the crib then and there. In organizations with tens of thousands of employees, such activities can be done at team levels and occasionally in bigger groups or across the organization. Activities such as these, when weaved into the organization’s culture can make people feel secure and psychologically safe.

Start with yourself

To cultivate a psychologically safe environment it is important that leaders feel psychologically safe and share openly. Often with yes-men at the helm of affairs, the habit of saying ‘yes’ always trickles down and silences the most vocal of employees. Leaders need to role-model a culture where people are free to express their opinions, even if they upset the popular opinion; and the culture must be such that it welcomes such ideas, instead of presuming them as threats to the status quo.

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things,” said Peter Drucker. You could choose to agree to the popular opinion and do things right, or disagree to the popular yet fallible opinion and do the right thing. 

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Topics: Strategic HR

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