In today’s virus-induced, hyper-remote workplace, psychological and emotional connections between teams and leaders are more important than ever for maintaining employee engagement. Employee engagement is a hot topic, but it’s one with roots going back three decades. The first reference to employee engagement was provided by William Kahn, who called it “personal engagement”. He talked about three psychological conditions that influence how engaged people feel at work:

  • Meaningfulness is about our actual job or role, about the sort of professional interactions we have, and how important these are to how we see ourselves
  • Safety is about the quality of interpersonal relationships, the nature of group dynamics and the way in which we are supported and led
  • Availability is about how much physical and emotional energy and confidence we have available to us, how present and available to others we are, and the degree to which the world away from work distracts us

So, engaged employees have a sense of meaningfulness, feel safe and secure at work, and are high in energy and confidence. Sounds great. But people don’t tend to show up for work engaged. Indeed, we know from Ashridge research that many individuals and many teams are actually disengaged at work.


How can leaders foster engagement?

Leaders can do a huge amount—more than anyone else—to create the environment in which engagement can flourish. Research shows that engagement is more likely to happen when three particular things that leaders can influence are in place:

  1. Leaders can give people things that they value, like autonomy and self-efficacy. And that sense of being safe
  2. Leaders also need to create and maintain a positive organizational climate
  3. Leaders need to lead in a transformational way


What can leaders do to achieve this?

None of these things is easy to do. But what sorts of things can leaders do that might contribute to people feeling autonomous and safe, within a positive climate, where they are led transformationally?

  • Leaders can model Daniel Goleman’s four competencies of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management. That would encourage the growth of emotional intelligence in colleagues and teammates, which in turn would improve professional interactions and build everyone’s access to emotional energy and confidence
  • Leaders can encourage and praise colleagues, so that their sense of self-efficacy and self-esteem can grow
  • Leaders can set a tone of realistic optimism which others will then observe and reflect, helping to create a positive culture within the team


What makes a transformational leader?

Leading transformationally is also easier to say than to do. Transformational leadership is morally uplifting, it’s selfless and other-regarding, it’s about taking emotional responsibility, it needs the leader to develop the ethical and moral standards of team members, putting team before self-interest. Transformational leadership transforms and inspires followers to move beyond self-interest and perform beyond expectations. The academics Bernard Bass and Bruce Avolio created five domains or focus areas of transformational leadership within their well-regarded Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire. These are:

  1. Builds trust
  2. Acts with integrity
  3. Encourages others
  4. Encourages innovative thinking
  5. Coaches and develops people

If you’re a leader who does all of this, then you already know that it helps team engagement massively. People feel more capable of controlling their work environment. They feel more able to manage their personal stress levels. They feel better led. They feel more confident—so they perform better, become even more engaged and a virtuous circle is created, where team engagement fuels team performance.

But can the emotionally intelligent leader generate even better performance from his team and from the individuals within it?


Feeling psychologically safe

Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership at Harvard, coined the expression psychological safety in her book, The Fearless Organization. She says that psychological safety is about recognising that genuine high performance requires the openness, flexibility, and interdependence that can develop only in a psychologically safe environment. Her research into psychological safety tells us that people feel it exists when there is a shared belief that there is safety within the team for interpersonal risk-taking to take place.

In that sort of environment, people feel able to make mistakes, able to admit failure, and to learn from both. Everyone openly shares ideas without fear of criticism, which leads to more and better innovation, better decision-making, better performance.


Putting engagement and safety together

So, what is the leader’s role in leveraging psychological safety? Central to the idea of team engagement are those three psychological conditions of Kahn’s: meaningfulnesssafety, and availability. Of these, the psychological condition of safety clearly has much in common with Edmondson’s notion of a place of psychological safety. Kahn said safety is about the quality of interpersonal relationships, the nature of group dynamics, and the way in which we are supported and led. If leaders can create these safe spaces both for the team as a whole and with individuals within the team, they will be helping to create maximum engagement, which will in turn drive maximum performance from individuals and from the team.


Making safe spaces

You don’t create these kinds of high-quality spaces on first acquaintance. It requires time—that precious commodity of which leaders too often have so little. Leaders must find time to be open, emotionally available, even vulnerable, as they persuade individuals and teams that it is OK to inhabit this kind of environment.

A place of psychological safety is a place where truth can be spoken to power, where constructive critical feedback can be given and received, where ideas can be offered free of risk. So, it must feel a secure place, and a fair place. Everyone needs to feel that they can be themselves and that they can exercise autonomy within the space, regardless of rank or expertise. They must also feel that they have value and that they are trusted and can trust within the space.


Four simple steps will help you to make these spaces:

  1. Get to know one another—and not just on a surface level. Find out what makes each team member tick. What are their motivational values, their hopes, dreams, fears, ambitions? What do they love about their work and what would they change? You can’t create psychological safety without mutual trust—and we don’t trust people we don’t know!
  2. Set the boundaries—this isn’t therapy. Or a weird sect. It’s just people. So, make sure everyone understands that this is about being open and honest, that everyone is allowed whatever personal boundaries they want, that this is a means to an end, which is about high performance. If you make it fun and transparent, they’ll take a step towards you. If you make it sound strange, they’ll take a step back.
  3. Show some vulnerability—after all, we’re long past the hero leader. Nobody nowadays expects leaders to be aloof, warrior-like charismatics who point the way with a shining sword. You’re human, they’re human. Show your humanity and you’ll be surprised how quickly they’ll reciprocate
  4. Keep communicating—give and get feedback. Ask people how they think it’s going. Tell people when you’re pleased with progress. This is all about creating and maintaining a culture, and as soon as you stop communicating around it, it begins to disappear…


Adding value with psychological safety

When these spaces begin to be created, if they are truly to contribute to individual and team engagement, then the conversations within these spaces cannot be inconsequential. They must be of value.

You need to spend time in this safe space talking about the really important stuff. That’s why you need a relationship first. Before you invite someone into a place of psychological safety for those really important conversations, you need that individual to know that you care, that you trust and are trustworthy, and you need a relationship which allows for genuine honesty. Then you can really make the best use of these places of psychological safety.

This is the quality time that will make a real difference to individual and team performance, because this is where you can address head-on those things that need to be said.


What’s in it for the leader?

Once you are confident that you have established relationships, even with the people to whom you may not warm personally, then you can use the psychologically safe spaces to do and to be several things:

  • A challenging safe space where those difficult conversations that must be had, (whether with individuals or teams) can be had properly, openly and fruitfully. Maybe you initiate them, maybe someone else does. But they happen
  • An inclusive safe space where the diversity that exists within the team or the differences that exist between individuals can be explored and transformed into inclusion. A space where conflict can be encouraged and addressed
  • A collaborative safe space where people can come together to share ideas, brainstorm, innovate, in a creative, supportive, uncritical way
  • A learning safe space where people can develop new skills, new understanding. Perhaps the first learning experience can be around psychological safety…


So, psychological safety is critical to employee engagement. And employee engagement is central to team success. Leaders are vital to the engagement levels of team members. Doesn’t this all boil down to one simple, unavoidable truth: if you’re a leader, you need to be able to build, maintain, and use to good effect places of psychological safety.

Which means I have just two questions: are you? And can you?