How a CEO Can Create Psychological Safety in the Room (2023)


As the CEO, your mere presence in a room dictates the power dynamic. The paradox of being a CEO is that your job is to encourage useful ideas, and yet your very presence can work against that objective. So can your desire to indulge in the dark side of charisma to seek admiration. Ironically, you must overcome the interpersonal liability of your role in order to perform it. How, then, can you create high levels of psychological safety to promote the unencumbered exchange of ideas and unedited circulation of feedback? The author, who has worked with hundreds of CEOs over the past 25 years, offers 10 practical ways to make that happen.

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There’s a power dynamic in every room. If you’re the CEO and you’re in the room, you control that dynamic. Positional power is consolidated in your hands, and what you say and do can draw people out or make them recoil with anxiety and fear.

In my work with hundreds of CEOs over the past 25 years, I’ve observed some who intellectually and emotionally muzzle the room, creating an echo chamber, and others who unleash the room, creating an idea meritocracy. I’ve seen that there is no arena where “the treacherous curtain of deference”⁠— a term coined by American diplomat George Kennan⁠— creates a more dangerous reality distortion field than when the CEO gathers with other members of the organization.

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The paradox of being a CEO is that your job is to encourage useful ideas, and yet your very presence can work against that objective. So can your desire to indulge in the dark side of charisma to seek admiration. Ironically, you must overcome the interpersonal liability of your role in order to perform it. By default, you have a profound influence on the room by regulating the quality of inputs, conversion, and outputs.

Consider the fact that for your people, their personal reputation, career opportunity, and job security are on the line. For you, the viability and success of the organization are on the line. You understand that silence is expensive, but your people understand that silence is safe. You understand that unvarnished feedback leads to good decision making, but your people understand that varnished feedback is a form of self-preservation. You know that fear breaks the feedback loop, but your people know that fear surrounds the feedback loop.

How, then, can you create high levels of psychological safety to promote the unencumbered exchange of ideas and unedited circulation of feedback? Here are 10 practical ways to make that happen:

1. Assign someone else to conduct the meeting.

Because you occupy the apex of power, you can change the power dynamic with small adjustments to the way you orchestrate a meeting. For example, when you assign someone else to conduct the meeting instead of taking the reins yourself, you’re visibly redistributing power by leveling yourself down to be more of a player-coach. This has the added benefit of giving you a better vantage point to dual-monitor content and interaction.

2. Don’t sit at the head of the table.

In many physical spaces, seating reflects the hierarchy. When you uphold rituals that reflect the power structure, it fosters guarded behavior and laundered language. Disrupt those rituals by not sitting at the head of the table. Mix it up — don’t allow people to get comfortable in designated spots. Show others that you’re agnostic to title, position, authority, and the accouterments of power by continually reconfiguring the physical space, including your personal proximity to the same people.

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3. Create warmth and informality.

It would be nice if you could personally greet and connect with every person in every meeting, but you can’t. What you can do is create an atmosphere of psychological safety by using your emotional intelligence to convey warmth and encourage collaboration. Pay attention to the slightest signals you send, including your gestures, facial expressions, and vocal characteristics (intensity, tone, volume, rate, and pitch).

4. Model acts of vulnerability.

You have a first-mover obligation to model acts of vulnerability to give others permission to do the same. This is disarming, especially when the people in the room are doing risk/reward calculations about what to say or not say. The quality of the clash of ideas will hinge on the permission and respect others sense through your behavior. If you show no personal vulnerability, silence will substitute for productive tension. So, try the following:

  • Openly challenge yourself
  • Ask for help
  • Admit what you don’t know
  • Point out a past mistake
  • Express your uncertainty

5. Stimulate inquiry before advocacy.

You need lateral, divergent, and non-linear thinking in the room. If you move from asking questions to advocating your position too soon, it softly censors your team and signals the end of the discussion.

There are two forms of inquiry: explanatory and exploratory. Explanatory inquiry uses data to understand current performance based on cause-and-effect relationships. Exploratory inquiry uses data to make assumptions and predictions about what could be possible. Explanatory inquiry helps improve execution, while exploratory inquiry drives innovation.

Whether your focus is execution or innovation, ask thoughtful questions surrounded by compassionate curiosity. This acts as an equalizer and dilutes the power differential. Make statements such as:

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  • Help me think this through…
  • I’d like to know…
  • I’m fascinated by…
  • I wonder why…
  • I can’t wait until we figure out how to…
  • Let’s see if we can tackle this problem together.

6. Reward challenges to the status quo.

One CEO I’ve worked with likes to raise an issue and then ask everyone in the room to challenge her point of view. She’ll say, “Tell me why I might be wrong. Help me see my blind spots.” Then she pauses and lets everyone sit in the silence until the first person is brave enough to challenge her. She immediately rewards the vulnerability by saying, “Thank you. I may have missed something. Let’s explore your perspective.” Keenly aware that smothering dissent increases the risk of poor judgment, she has done this so often that challenging the status quo has become normalized behavior.

7. Push back with humor and enthusiasm.

To increase the productive tension in the room, another CEO I’ve worked with makes smart use of humor and enthusiasm. For example, he’ll ask, “May I arm wrestle you on that point?” which always elicits a smile and positive response. Humor and enthusiasm are not only disarming, but also inject excitement into the process and communicate a commitment to rigorous debate. This approach also takes the emotional edge off high-stakes discussions. If you can disagree without being autocratic, it leaves the discussion open for others to do the same.

8. Buffer strong personalities.

Chances are you have introverts, extroverts, and strong personalities in the room. Keep in mind that introverts may prefer to process quietly and nonverbally, whereas extroverts may relish verbal, public processing. Contain strong personalities, especially those who lack self-awareness. Don’t allow assertions of dominance or overly dogmatic behavior. One CEO does this by saying, “As we discuss this issue, don’t take more than your fair share of airtime. I want each of you to ensure equal participation.” Remember, insecure people tend to elevate themselves by subordinating others. Your job is to create a shame- and embarrassment-free environment. The higher the arena of power, the deeper the potential humiliation if things go south. Finally, draw out the quiet ones. Ask a question up front and give time for reflection.

9. Listen and pause.

When you listen and pause, you’re communicating respect in an unmistakable way. You’re telling the person that they deserve to be seen, heard, and understood. There is perhaps no more powerful way to validate another human being. When you do this in the presence of other members of your organization, you send a clear message that the individual matters. I know a CEO who does this exceptionally well. He listens with intensity and will sometimes pause for a long time. People often try to break the awkward silence, but he raises his hand gently to signal a no-interruption rule. These moments of truth embolden others to think harder and contribute more fully.

10. Give highly targeted praise and recognition.

Inject precision into your praise and recognition. Instead of saying, “I appreciate that insight,” make it highly targeted by explaining why. The “why” explains how the contribution is valuable, which both reinforces the behavior and coaches the individual to engage in deeper analysis. You might say instead, “I appreciate that insight because you’re helping us identify other areas of risk that we weren’t paying attention to.” One CEO I’ve worked with avoids any hint of gratuitous or uncritical praise because he believes his job is to constantly stretch the critical-thinking capacity of his people. Don’t withhold or be stingy with praise or recognition. Just give it in the moment with an explanation and genuine encouragement.

(Video) Amy Edmondson: Fearless - Creating Psychological Safety for Learning, Innovation, and Growth

. . .

As the CEO, you are first among equals, yet your mere presence dictates the power dynamic. Take the opportunity to deliberately design that dynamic. If you induce fear, seek admiration, or allow hierarchy to outrank truth, you abdicate your role. But if you nurture psychological safety to unleash the room, you magnify your role and scale your influence and impact. Remember Dickens’ description of Fezziwig’s impact on the room: “He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ‘em up.”


How do you create psychological safety in a meeting? ›

How does psychological safety improve meeting performance and event productivity?
  1. Ask for, and receive, both positive and negative feedback.
  2. Use respectful, clear language, both in and outside of meetings.
  3. Feel comfortable sharing not only what is, but what isn't going well.

How do you train psychological safety? ›

How to create psychological safety at work
  1. Promote self-awareness. ...
  2. Demonstrate concern for team members as people. ...
  3. Actively solicit questions. ...
  4. Provide multiple ways for employees to share their thoughts. ...
  5. Show value and appreciation for ideas. ...
  6. Promote positive dialogue and discussion.
Jun 3, 2021

What are the 5 steps to psychological safety? ›

Improving Psychological Safety Involves the Whole Team
  • Find Out What is Hampering the Psychological Safety of Your Workforce. ...
  • Promote Psychological Safety with Authentic Leadership. ...
  • Identify and Leverage Employee Strengths to Create a Positive Work Culture. ...
  • Realign Workplace Culture to Improve Psychological Safety.

What are some examples of creating psychological safety? ›

To increase psychological safety, managers must actively listen and must not disparage the person or their ideas. Even your tone of voice when you thank the team member for their input can impact the feeling of psychological safety if you come across as belittling the person.

Why is psychological safety important in the workplace? ›

When team members feel safe at work, it's easier for them to engage. This could be in a team meeting, solving problems, collaborating on projects, and engaging with their customers and peers.

How do you create emotional safety at work? ›

5 Ways to Promote Emotional Safety in the Workplace
  1. Be Empathetic. Encourage open communication in the workplace and make an effort to address issues such as employee burnout, anxiety, and depression. ...
  2. Encourage Risk-taking. ...
  3. No-blame Culture. ...
  4. Promote Active Listening. ...
  5. Set an Example.
Aug 13, 2021

What is psychological health and safety in the workplace? ›

Psychologically healthy and safe workplace – a workplace that promotes employees' psychological well-being and actively works to prevent harm to worker psychological health, including in negligent, reckless, or intentional ways. ( Canadian Standards Association)

What are the four stages of psychological safety list all four? ›

Psychological safety is a condition in which you feel (1) included, (2) safe to learn, (3) safe to contribute, and (4) safe to challenge the status quo—all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way.

What are the two elements of psychological safety? ›

There are also two aspects of a team that help improve its psychological safety. They are: A clear team structure where members understand their role on the team. Strong relationships between cohesive team members.

What is the psychological safety model? ›

Clark, The Psychological Safety model is a framework that focuses on encouraging and rewarding vulnerability in the workplace. The foundation of this model is based on the knowledge that employees should feel safe to express their feelings and thoughts at work in order to perform their best.

What can your organization do to improve psychological safety for employees? ›

Psychological Safety: How to Build and Promote Team Psychological Safety
  1. Practice Giving Feedback. ...
  2. Get To Know Everyone. ...
  3. Collaborate and Share Ownership. ...
  4. Deal With Things When They Come Up. ...
  5. Ask People How They're Doing, and Mean It.

How does psychological safety improve team performance? ›

Psychological safety and high-performing teams

By having a psychologically safe environment, employees perceive risk as a good thing, and there is an understanding that employees won't be seen as ignorant, incompetent, or invalid. Risk in this context could mean challenging the status quo, pitching a novel idea, etc.

Why is a psychologically safe environment important? ›

As mentioned earlier, innovation becomes easier with a psychologically safe environment, in that employees are less likely to fear failure and more likely to challenge the status quo. This helps with tackling complex problems and uncovering new ways of working.

What are the 7 steps in Behaviour based safety process? ›

The Safety Improvement Process:
  1. Identify critical problem behaviors. These become action items to work on.
  2. Identify root causes. The “basic things” that need to be fixed to eliminate the problem.
  3. Generate potential actions. ...
  4. Evaluate possible actions. ...
  5. Develop an action plan. ...
  6. Implement an action plan. ...
  7. Conduct follow up.

How do you measure psychological safety in a team? ›

Delivering pulse surveys with important questions will keep you in the know. Ask the hard questions from employees and team members. Use surveys to collect and analyse the data. Depending on the answers of your employees will determine the level of psychological safety at your organisation.

What are the 5 pillars of safety? ›

5 Pillars of Safety in Healthcare is a disciplined strategy based on five critical areas. Focus on 1) hand hygiene, 2) process, 3) surface measurement, 4) augmentation, and 5) emerging solutions can mitigate infection transmission. All five must work in an integrated program fueled by people, protocols and products.

Which behavior promotes psychological safety in a team? ›

The same behaviors that encourage psychological safety in in-person teams can be used in remote teams — inviting experimentation, asking for feedback, and welcoming respectful conflict. However, you may have to be more intentional about building psychological safety when you're not in each other's presence.

What are the three benefits of psychological safety? ›

Benefits of psychological safety in the workplace

speak up more often and openly. share their views and ideas with their managers. feed their opinions to influence decision making in their teams.

Why is psychological safety important for leaders? ›

Psychological safety is also crucial for the performance of teams, which are the lifeblood of today's organizations. To boost psychological safety at work, leaders must first turn inward to understand and integrate their own emotions and fears, and then turn outward to support others.

How do you create a safe space for employees? ›

10 tips on how to create a safe & positive work environment
  1. Get your team to show appreciation for each other.
  2. Keep all discussions open and transparent.
  3. Comprehensive training and onboarding.
  4. Understand one another's ways of working.
  5. Celebrate team wins.
  6. Spend time together not working.
  7. Reflect on the week together.
Jun 10, 2022

What does psychological safety mean to managers? ›

Psychological safety is the ability to show and employ one's self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career. In the workplace, it is a shared belief held by members of a company, department or team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.

What is the 5 safety tips in the workplace? ›

Workplace safety tips
  • Use tools, equipment and machinery properly. ...
  • Report any unsafe conditions. ...
  • Wear all necessary safety gear. ...
  • Keep your workplace clear from clutter. ...
  • Stay hydrated. ...
  • Practice good posture when sitting or lifting. ...
  • Take regular breaks. ...
  • Be aware of your surroundings.
Dec 12, 2019

What are safe work practices provide three 3 examples? ›

Identify hazards and risk control methods.
Wear appropriate personal protective equipment, including:
  • goggles and a face shield;
  • rubberised oil resistant gloves to cover the hands and lower arms;
  • rubberised oil resistant apron long enough to cover the lower legs; and,
  • footwear closed over toes and non-slip soles.

What are the 5 defining characteristics of a psychologically healthy and safe workplace? ›

To be considered a PHWP, an organization must meet five criteria, which were developed through scientifically sound research by a committee of psychologists:
  • Employee involvement. ...
  • Work-life balance. ...
  • Employee growth and development. ...
  • Health and safety. ...
  • Employee recognition.
Aug 28, 2017

What is the key predictor of psychological safety? ›

To achieve psychological safety, a team must CARE for one another, which they achieve through clarity, autonomy, relationships, and equity. Clarity: Team members create a safe space for each other when they are on the same page, their expectations are crystal clear, and there is little to no ambiguity.

What comes first trust or psychological safety? ›

Trust is indeed essential to building and maintaining psychological safety in a team: if you break another team member's trust, it will certainly damage the psychological safety of the team.

What is another word for psychological safety? ›

The concept of psychological safety has been tweaked and skewed over the years, creating high risk in assuming that its definition is an alternate approach for workplace trust.

What behaviors do you see that reflect psychological safety? ›

The three most powerful behaviors that foster psychological safety are being available and approachable, explicitly inviting input and feedback, and modeling openness and fallibility. The second area that contributes to psychological safety is Group Dynamics.

What is psychological safety in leadership? ›

What is Psychological Safety? “Psychological safety is the belief that you won't be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes,” notes The Center for Creative Leadership, a global provider of research-based executive education.

How can you be an advocate for psychological safety in the workplace? ›

How to create psychological safety:
  • Create an understanding of what work the team does and why everyone's input matters.
  • Acknowledge that every person is their own person.
  • Proactively invite input from everyone.
  • Respond supportively to others' input.

How can promoting psychological safety benefit an organization? ›

Enhanced employee engagement

When team members feel safe at work, it's easier for them to engage. This could be in a team meeting, solving problems, collaborating on projects, and engaging with their customers and peers.

What is the importance of psychosocial safety in the workplace? ›

As mentioned earlier, innovation becomes easier with a psychologically safe environment, in that employees are less likely to fear failure and more likely to challenge the status quo. This helps with tackling complex problems and uncovering new ways of working.

What are the components of psychological safety? ›

The Four Stages of Psychological Safety
  • Inclusion Safety. Members feel safe to belong to the team.
  • Learner Safety. Members are able to learn through asking questions.
  • Contributor Safety. Members feel safe to contribute their own ideas.
  • Challenger Safety. Members can question others' ideas or suggest significant changes.

How does psychological safety improve team performance in the workplace? ›

Psychological safety refers to the belief that you and your team are safe to take risks. It also revolves around speaking your mind fearlessly. When team members are psychologically safe, they feel empowered to express their thoughts and ideas without fear. And you can be more confident when delegate tasks to them.

How do you provide psychological support to employees? ›

What Can Managers Do?
  1. Be vulnerable. ...
  2. Model healthy behaviors. ...
  3. Build a culture of connection through check-ins. ...
  4. Offer flexibility and be inclusive. ...
  5. Communicate more than you think you need to. ...
  6. Invest in training. ...
  7. Modify policies and practices. ...
  8. Measure.
Aug 7, 2020


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