Bosses want their employees to feel it’s OK to ask for help or share a seemingly silly idea. Leaders may even understand how psychological safety benefits a workplace by improving collaboration and innovation. Too often, though, there’s a disconnect between how bosses think team members feel at work and reality. When the fact that workers aren’t comfortable speaking their minds finally comes to light, leaders are often left wondering why they didn’t see the problem and what they should have done differently.

Our earlier blog post, 6 ways to create psychological safety at work: Lessons for leaders, outlines steps CEOs, middle managers, and entry-level supervisors can take to make sure every individual feels respected, valued, and heard. This follow-up helps leaders identify major barriers to psychological safety and understand the importance of self-reflection in avoiding common pitfalls.

Unconscious bias and exclusive cultures

Leaders can hold a bias toward a certain type of person or group of people without realizing it. This is called unconscious bias and it’s important to realize it’s inherent in all of us. Our biases are based on learned assumptions, beliefs, or attitudes toward others. Leaders  may favor one gender over another or stereotype someone based on their age or sexual orientation. They may select someone to be on a team because they look or act like them; this is called similarity bias. Biases are a barrier to diversity, inclusion, and belonging. 

In order for leaders to uncover and address unconscious bias, they must reflect on their own beliefs and actions toward people who are different than them. Participating in unconscious bias training and encouraging your team members to do the same can help uncover biases and build in-roads toward creating a more inclusive workplace culture.

Unconscious bias can produce an exclusive culture. In exclusive cultures, certain people are included and other are left out. Some employees have access to the knowledge they need to advance while others are left in the dark. Certain people get more facetime with their bosses while the rest are ignored. Ideas offered up by a few team members are heard and acted on, while the remainder are disregarded.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is a leader who confronted his own unconscious bias. After receiving backlash for a comment that women who have “good karma” don’t need to ask for a raise, it revealed a blind spot. Nadella took it upon himself to better understand why women weren’t offered the same promotional opportunities as men and transformed the tech giant’s culture for the better.

Poor communication

Good communication is a requirement of good leadership. Frequent communication drives higher engagement and aligns teams around project expectation and goals. Conversely, when people feel ignored and out of the loop, they feel less safe and work suffers.

To encourage open dialogue, leaders need to be cognizant about creating room for other people to speak. Team members are more likely to engage and communicate openly when leaders share ideas, pause and ask others to voice their thoughts, then actively listen.

How leaders communicate information matters as least as much as what they say. To be an effective communicator, managers should monitor their tone and body language. If leaders are stressed or upset and this comes across in their tone, team members won’t receive the message in the same way as when managers are in a good mood and speak calmly. Leaders who are harsh, negative, or fail to demonstrate respect for others will drive fear in their teams and cause employees to disengage or avoid interacting with them.

Listening is a way to make people feel safe and valued. Asking team members how they are doing then genuinely listening can ease their stress and anxiety, even when managers are unable to change everything that’s causing those feelings. 

It’s important to remember that employees have different ways of communicating. Make it a point to get to know each team member’s communication style and preferences and adapt how you speak with them.

“The more we talk to each other, the more comfortable we become doing so,” said Amy C. Edmondson, who coined the term psychological safety and has written extensively on the subject.

Criticism and punitive behaviors

It’s important to give team members feedback and even more important for leaders to consider the way they deliver feedback. Leaders who disregard their employees’ feelings will destroy the sense of safety they’ve worked to create. 

Managers need to consider not only their words and tone, but the timing of the feedback. For example, if a worker is getting ready to give a presentation to a customer, don’t give them negative feedback on an unrelated topic an hour before. This seems obvious, yet it is a common mistake, and a way to destroy their confidence at a crucial moment.

Leaders should consider whether they use feedback to build people up and encourage learning, or if they are merely pointing out weaknesses. When a leader criticizes a team member for a failure, that employee becomes less likely to share again in the future. Criticism and punitive behaviors limit a worker’s ability to stay in a growth mindset and for the lesson learned to make them better in their craft.

Punitive behaviors also destroy creativity. Why would anyone share an unfinished design if they are afraid of criticism? Instead, they’ll keep the draft to themselves until it’s complete and perfect, wasting an opportunity for early input and ultimately a superior product.

Frequent feedback should be used to develop people on the job. Managers can further foster psychological safety by sharing their own mistakes with team members and soliciting regular feedback about their effectiveness as leaders.

Superficial work relationships

Remote and hybrid work has increased employees’ feelings of isolation and decimated workplace cultures. Returning to the office and advocating for face-to-face meetings won’t magically create meaningful connections among team members and between supervisors and their employees. Psychological safety must come first. At the same time, leaders need to take the time to build authentic relationships for psychological safety to exist.

Team members who believe their manager know them and care about them are more likely to feel safe to be themselves and share ideas. To form genuine relationships, leaders must proactively get to know others and create opportunities for those individuals to get to know them. Nurture deep relationships by asking your team members how they’re doing, soliciting their input, and scheduling regular one-on-one check-ins.

Old-school beliefs that workplace conversations should focus specifically on the project at hand or otherwise be shallow and void of emotion stand in the way of employees feeling truly included and cared for by their managers and coworkers.

“These perceptions about cultural norms and prohibitions exemplify how essential psychological safety is to facilitating those first vulnerable moves toward bonding with someone else in the workplace,” said Constance Noonan Hadley, an organizational psychologist and founder of the Institute for Life at Work at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business.

Commit to personal development

To avoid psychological safety pitfalls, make creating a safe workplace culture a daily practice. Managers who self-reflect on their leadership skills and make a personal commitment toward growth and improvement are better able to build relationships, create impact, and build safe and inclusive cultures.