I've recently been asked by a few of our clients on how to improve psychological safety. One of the most insightful things on this topic is to realise that psychological safety is often not a binary question. There are many factors influencing psychological safety, however the first step is to understand the different levels of psychological safety, so that as leaders we can create experiments to provide intervention to foster more safety for our people and teams.

Understanding the Levels of Psychological Safety

Psychological safety isn't a one-size-fits-all concept. It actually comes in different levels, and understanding them is key to creating a truly supportive workplace. Let's explore these levels:


Level 1: Basic Safety

This is the starting point. At this level, team members feel safe enough to do their job without fearing punishment or humiliation. They know they won't be reprimanded for making honest mistakes. It's like a safety net that catches you when you slip.

Practical Tip: Encourage open dialogue about challenges and share your own mistakes to set the tone.


Level 2: Sharing Ideas

Moving up the ladder, this level is about people feeling comfortable sharing their ideas without feeling judged or dismissed. They're willing to put their thoughts out there, even if they're unconventional or untested. It's like opening the door to innovation.

Practical Tip: Praise and acknowledge creative thinking, even if an idea doesn't pan out.


Level 3: Taking Risks

At this level, your team members feel confident enough to take calculated risks without worrying about blame. They're not afraid to venture into uncharted territory, knowing they have your support. It's like the fuel for growth.

Practical Tip: Encourage calculated risk-taking and celebrate lessons learned, not just successes.


Level 4: Honest Feedback

At the highest level, your team feels free to give and receive honest feedback. They trust that their input will be used constructively, not as a weapon. This is where you see constant improvement and genuine collaboration.

Practical Tip: Foster a culture of feedback, and lead by example by actively seeking and welcoming input.


The Big Takeaway

In a nutshell, psychological safety isn't just a yes-or-no thing; it's a spectrum. The higher you can climb on this ladder, the more your workplace will thrive. So, take these simple steps, start adding more psychological safety in your workplace. Want to improve psychological safety for your workplace? Join us on our 1 day workshop on Psychological safety here.

I love travelling and visiting different countries. Being born in Singapore, I am always fascinated when I travel back to visit family and friends at how much the country has changed and evolved in just a short period of time.

The picture below depicts how far Singapore has come as a small nation over the past 50 years, defying obstacles and constraints in order to become one of the most respected and wealthiest Asian countries in the world.

As human beings we have a bias for progress - take technology for example. It's not uncommon for new breakthroughs to be developed over many years without being accessible to the general public until many years later either due to cost, complexity, or simply feasibility.

The OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diodes) display is a really good example of technology that has fought for many years to surface to the top over other display technologies such as PLASMA, LED, CRT etc. In 1987, the world's first OLED paper was released by Kodak. I'm sure at the time when the first OLED paper was invented, I imagine that the excitement around future possibilities of this technology was buzzing around Kodak. However what is interesting is if you look at the journey of OLED over the next 30 years, its intriguing to see a few things happen.

  1. Kodak are no longer the leaders of the technology
  2. As OLED became more and more available mainstream, it became simpler and more accessible
  3. It took 20 odd years before OLED was introduced to televisions

So what does this all have to do with Agile and its application to New Zealand businesses?

Having devoted the last 2 years to building Radically, a lot of my time has been spent on getting to know the challenges of New Zealand businesses, both large and small. The common pattern across most organisations is change. While the reasons and motivators might be different from organisation to organisation, most do fit in one of the categories below:

  • Margin at risk due to declining revenues, increased market competition and pressure on costs
  • A sudden boom in the organisation, requiring significant growth in order to meet demand in orders of magnitude of +200% growth
  • Industry profitability is declining, requiring a shift in strategy to innovate and diversify for future survival

In speaking to organisations, what I've found is that most know they need a step change, and that in their current form, they would not be successful. More and more organisations are realising that improving their ways of working in the form of culture, processes and practices is a way to overcome their challenge.

Organisations that journey down the path to shift in the way they work often look for a partner to diagnose and help them start. Just like when you visit your local GP for medical expertise, organisations that face these challenges look to consulting companies and individual experts to prescribe the right medication in order to get healthier. Unfortunately instead of becoming healthier, many of these organisations end up becoming more sick than when they started. Why is this?

From talking to businesses and their leaders, I've found that the help and advice they were given was focused on an idealism and a pursuit of an outcome which often has not been translated to suit the needs of their organisation. Even worse, when asked if prescriptions such as Agile can be tailored, they were labelled anti-agile or not-agile, leading to an assumed implication that having achieved agility means you have succeeded.

This type of approach often leads to organisation seeking to be Agile as an outcome, losing focus on their original symptom, which is to increase business performance, improve delivery, or build foundations to scale.

Unlike the OLED example, where technology was developed then modernised and simplified, many in the industry have failed to simplify and make Agile digestible for businesses to adopt. The impact of this is many organisations have become resistant because they are forced to make a binary decision - "are you Agile or not?". This often ends up taking organisations down the wrong path in pursuit of an outcome to comply to an "Agile way of working", rather than simply working better so that the business thrives. Whilst I understand in application things are more complex, my challenge is that as experts of change, it is our duty to wear our expertise lightly and make it easy for organisations to embrace better ways of working, rather than make the solution the only means.

I started off this thought piece with the idea of what might be beyond Agile. My challenge is as we look beyond, that we don't think deeper and more complex as the solution. In my experience most are still at the stage where they benefit from very simple principles such as

  • Embracing try and learn
  • Delivering in iterations
  • Structuring for intentful collaboration
  • Reflect and learn often

Many of us understand that these are inherently linked to Agile practices, however they do not have to be implemented by the book. Instead, at Radically we believe organisational benefits come from making these principles so simple and practical, that they can be applied across the entire organisation. This is what better ways of working means, as opposed to achieving some kind of agility index or being the very best follower of a practice like scrum, but failing to meet your business goals.

At Radically we strive every day to draw on our diverse teams expertise, such as:

  • Delivery Experts who have managed large complex waterfall programmes
  • Agile Coaches who have helped embed new mindset and practices in organisations
  • Business leaders who have set a vision and understand the realities of running a P&L
  • People & Culture practitioners who deeply understand people, psychology and the practices required to unlock high performance

Together we are a diverse group of people who believe in partnering with organisations large and small that who want to improve their ways of working. To do this we:

  • Make the complex simple
  • Draw on a diverse background of skills and experience
  • Focus on delivering clear business outcomes

If you've been considering how you can step change your business in 2020 and want a partner that has deep expertise with the ability to simplify the complex, feel free to get in touch with myself or one of the team.

“Leading is not the same as being the leader. Being the leader means you hold the highest rank, either by earning it, good fortune or navigating internal politics. Leading, however, means that others willingly follow you—not because they have to, not because they are paid to, but because they want to.” – Simon Sinek

If your employees were all volunteers, would they still follow you, or would they up and leave? The days of leading from position are long-gone – it’s not enough to have title, rank or authority as a platform to lead. As the battle for talent takes center stage in this digital age, leaders have to actively grow and intentionally practice their leadership skills if they are to thrive and succeed. A good test for this is to ask yourself, would your team follow you if they didn’t have to?

It goes without saying, that in order to be a leader, you have to have followers – A leader has followers if they truly believe that their leader has their best interests at heart. For this to happen, employees have to feel safe to be who they truly are. Then, and only then, will they trust, follow and fully throw themselves into their leader’s cause. This is true follower-ship.

With disruption in technology today, there is also an exponential rise of confusion within leaders, many of whom find it difficult to connect with a changing digital workforce. This culture can be impatient, fast paced, ever-changing, experimentation driven and information rich. While this could be mistaken as the millennial effect, a recent Forbes article which surveyed leading millennials, gives us an insight that regardless of generation and environment, common sense leadership principles prevailed.

The article captures four key principles to leading millennials:

  1. Empower your team
  2. Think long term
  3. Acknowledge what they do
  4. Treat them as individuals

What is interesting is that the principles above aren’t at all unique to the environment or types of employees being led. Distilled to its core, the type of leadership required in a digital organization is simply genuine leadership. Despite the changing times, the core skills of leadership have not changed. Employees will follow leaders who have their interests at heart, understand them as individuals and sometimes even make decisions at their cost.

What we see is a rise in employees who are hyper-sensitive to genuine leadership. We often hear employees don’t leave organizations, they leave managers. This couldn’t be more true. It is this that showcases the vital role genuine leadership plays when finding and retaining great talent, which can make or break your organization.

So what makes a Genuine Leader? Here are four characteristics to reflect on,

Genuine Leaders take time to understand the individual as a whole

So much of who we are, how we think and behave is shaped by our past experience and how we have grown up. A conversation I had with my CEO recently went like this:

“Hearing how you grew up in Singapore and the environment there, helped me understand how you make decisions and what you are influenced and shaped by”

It’s easy to fall into the trap of focusing on the tasks at hand, simply working through what needs to be done with employees. The problem with this is that when conflict arises, most of the time it’s due to individuals looking at a situation through different perspectives. Their perspectives are shaped by who they are, and we often don’t take time to understand those who we lead fully, in order to stand in their shoes and see their perspective.

How often have you been in the situation where you can’t seem to get through to someone and no matter how many times you try, they just don’t seem to be on the same page? In these situations, we can be tempted to resort to leading with authority out of frustration.

Take time to understand individuals as a whole – we expect them to bring their whole selves to work, so why not take the time to know them as a whole?

Genuine Leaders are front-stage and back-stage leaders

It’s easy to spot leaders who aren’t genuinely for the individuals in their team. In front of an audience, they say and do the right things, but behind the scenes when the individual isn’t there, their actions reflect different intentions.

Being a leader is not about prestige, nor should it be a status symbol – simply put, leadership is a choice, and that choice comes with a weight of responsibility. Individuals that follow you believe you will create a safe environment for them, and have a desire to add value to add to them. When leaders see their job at hand as a weighted burden, their perspective changes from “How can I get Bob to do what I want him to do”, to “How do I help Mary be the best she can be”.

When leaders adopt that kind of mindset, their actions naturally reflect that positive intent regardless whether they are in front of a stage, or whether they are working behind the scenes.

Genuine Leaders understand that people learn at their individual pace

Giving feedback is an important part of leadership. People should never be uncertain of how they are performing, good or bad. At General Electric a culture of candor was an important part of who they were, so much so that if you saw your manager in the bathroom, it would be normal to have a quick chat around performance and progress. It was not seen as a formal thing that happened once a year, rather something natural that represented who they are.

That said – giving effective feedback is a skill, and sometimes giving direct feedback too early can rob individuals from getting true value out it. In my time leading, I’ve found that the timing of giving feedback is just as important as giving the feedback itself. Sometimes the time-pressures of a day leads leaders into feeling that giving feedback is a task to tick off. Genuine leaders take time to understand the growth journey of an individual, and understand that individuals might not change immediately not because they don’t respect or want to listen to your feedback, but simply because change is hard!

This is where understanding the individual as a whole is so important – sometimes coaching over a longer period of time is much more effective, and you’ll find that when the individual realizes their blind spot, they end up “getting it”, being a bit embarrassed, and become exponentially more committed to real change.

Genuine Leaders give context, understanding that why is more important than what

I’ve seen leaders fixated on the “what” – a decision or outcome that they want their teams to buy into, and forgetting to communicate the “why”. When we are focused on the outcome, we tend to focus on the “what”, but when we focus on leading the individual, we take a more holistic view and focus on “why”.

This is why conversations are often more important than the actual outcome. Two leaders deliver the same message, with totally different responses – one with high-performers in their team feeling demotivated, and the other who created buy-in and support from employees. Whether it be policies, constraints to work within, or simply a difficult task at hand, genuine leaders who focus on leading the individual naturally focus on the “why” and not the “what”.

If you are leading from a place of authority of position, it’s likely you’re communicating “what” you want employees to do. The next time you are struggling to get buy-in, take a step back and reflect on the conversation. Try leading with “why” before giving direction and keep your focus on genuinely leading the individual.

In a time where more and more buzz words are being created to tackle the fast changing nature of adapting to a rise in being digital, it’s important for us to understand that leading in a digital culture isn’t all that digital.

Whilst new digital tools may aid us, nothing beats genuine, authentic and real leadership.