How Leaders Give Feedback and Build Psychological Safety
Updated: Mar 26
Christa McAuliffe would have been the first teacher in space. Instead, the space shuttle she was on, named Challenger, broke apart 73 seconds after leaving Earth. Christa and the astronaut team never made it to space.
On the surface, it was a technical problem; the spacecraft wasn’t sealed properly for the intense cold at liftoff. But the root cause was very human: managers at NASA knew about this fatal flaw for nine years before the disaster. Engineers tried to speak up about the problem, but they were ignored. NASA wasn’t a safe place to voice concerns. The culture didn’t tolerate or learn from failures, and this hurt NASA’s performance, sacrificing seven lives in the process.
The Challenger disaster is a well-known example of groupthink. When a team is aware of a bad choice, but no one speaks up against it, flawed decision-making takes place. NASA in the 80s ignored the voices of engineers and specialists working directly with the source of the issue speaking in the name of safety. If engineers and managers felt safe to speak up and their concerns were taken seriously, they could have avoided this disaster. Instead, deadlines and business outcomes were given higher value than employees’ voices.
How can we build teams so that everyone’s voice is amplified?
Develop a Culture of Psychological Safety
Psychological Safety is when people feel safe to take risks speaking up and sharing concerns, questions, or ideas. A psychologically safe culture is driven by trust, respect, and openness in which people feel they can voice their opinions without consequences. Google’s 2015 study, “Project Aristotle” found that psychological safety was the most significant factor for team performance.
Adam Grant, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know
Can fostering team psychological safety avoid disasters like the Challenger space shuttle crash? Yes!
Psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and mental health nurses who feel psychologically safe at work are less likely to quit their jobs.
Employees in the transport industry who perceive psychological safety at work feel less time pressure, lower burnout, and higher general well-being.
Physicians who report higher psychological safety are more likely to receive constructive and positive performance feedback from peers, and explanations of the feedback supporting the continuous professional development.
Airline crew members who feel psychologically safe with their teams and leaders are more likely to speak up.
Employees Experience Psychological Safety Differently
Although diversity is a driver of organizational performance, higher innovation, and resilience, a significant effort must be made to effectively manage diverse groups as they are more likely to encounter communication barriers, ambiguity, stereotypes and biases. For example:
In comparison to men, women report lower psychological safety. As a result, men feel safer taking risks at work, and women are more concerned that mistakes will be held against them.
Younger employees report higher concern to negative consequences as a result of mistakes.
Minority groups report higher anxiety linked to discrimination and exclusion.
This means that our identity plays a key role in our experience of psychological safety and performance - simply because of who we are!
Leaders Create a Culture of Psychological Safety
Leaders are key to the development of psychologically safe climates as they continuously shape employees’ perceptions of acceptable behaviour. Within each employee interaction, leaders communicate what is and isn’t tolerated in the workplace. For example, if a leader critiques, talks over, or dismisses contributions made by women or younger employees, they have set the tone that it is okay to behave that way and others will follow suit. Leaders must model and encourage behaviours that promote a safe climate.
However, while leaders understand the concept of psychological safety, they often misunderstand how to create it. The phrase “actions speak louder than words” is fully applicable to nurturing psychological safety. Here are some quick habits leaders can adopt to build psychological safety:
Continuously emphasize to their team that diversity drives innovation, creativity, satisfaction and performance.
Tolerate failure and support their employees to learn and grow professionally.
Acknowledge employees’ contributions and send constant signals that their team members are being heard and considered.
Building a climate of psychological safety is not a one-time effort or a checklist item. Rather, it is a sustained effort by leaders that requires vulnerability, openness and commitment to their own learning.
How Leaders Give and Receive Feedback to Build Psychological Safety
Giving and receiving constructive criticism is a critical leadership skill to build psychological safety. But how is this best done?
1. Do not dichotomize feedback: First, recognize that feedback is biased. Research shows that there is a difference in the type of feedback that men and women receive at work. In comparison to women, men are given more insightful feedback on the technical skills they need to improve and develop. On the contrary, women are more likely to receive feedback about communication styles or personality. This vague feedback is strongly correlated with lower performance outcomes and opportunities.
Nearly 9 out of 10 employees want to be coached, mentored, developed, and/or given opportunities to grow professionally. However, 1 out of 3 feedback strategies backfire, having a negative impact on performance. This is more likely to happen with women and minority group members. Proper constructive feedback is an advantage and, as such, it is important that all employees are given the same tools for development.
2. Use this one sentence: Feedback can be scary. People hate ambiguity, so when someone says “Can I give you some feedback?”, we might brace ourselves for impact. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Feeling anxious or uncertain about feedback doesn’t prepare us well for it. Fortunately, there’s one sentence leaders can use to transform feedback reactions and make sure their team members feel heard:
“I’m giving you these comments because we have very high expectations, and I know you can reach them.”
People addressed in this inclusive way get three important cues:
They feel connected: Using “we” brings the person getting feedback into the group
There’s a shared vision of achievement: Sharing the group’s high standards sets a challenging goal for everyone to work toward, together
It feels safe: Hearing the team has confidence in you can help you see feedback as constructive
Feedback should not be considered positive or negative. Instead, leaders should always treat feedback as “constructive feedback” and focus on building someone’s competencies, professional abilities and future behaviours.
3. Leaders! Share Your Personal Experiences: Leaders must display that just like anyone else, they are subject to err and welcome feedback in search of improvement. After all, if our leaders encourage constructive feedback and are continuously working to grow, why shouldn’t we all?
Leaders are often coached to directly ask for constructive feedback from their team members, but is there a better way to build psychological safety? A study involving multiple organizations showed that:
Managers who directly requested feedback from their teams got defensive and received useless comments impossible to act upon, resulting in disappointment across the team and leaders.
In contrast, managers that shared their own past experiences with receiving feedback along with their future goals were more successful in creating psychological safety. Why? Because by showing their own imperfections they normalized vulnerability, failure, and growth, creating a safe space for their team to do the same.
This is a great example of how experiments challenge our assumptions of what works. We will never get tired of saying it, but you must rely on evidence to effectively develop and implement DEI strategies!
Small changes. Big difference.
Remember, tiny habits in our daily interactions are the foundation to a psychologically safe work environment. Elevate leaders to bring an inclusive lens on everything they do, from feedback to inclusive team meetings and product design. These small changes snowball into larger cultural changeover time.
Let’s Make Inclusion Stick!
The Jasmar Group is a behaviour change consultancy that helps organizations build team belonging, culture, and performance. Our solutions are evidence-based and designed to drive faster progress towards diverse and inclusive workplaces.
Interested in a new approach to building a diverse and inclusive workplace? Contact Sylvia Apostolidis, President of The Jasmar Group at firstname.lastname@example.org or 416-262-2779.
1- Coutifaris, C. & Grant, A.M. (Working paper, 2020). Taking Your Team Behind the Curtain: The Effects Of Leader Feedback-Sharing, Feedback-Seeking And Humility on Team Psychological Safety Over Time. Retrieved from: Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. Chapter 10.
2- Coyle, D. (2018). The culture code: The secrets of highly successful groups. Bantam.
3- Grant, A.M. (2021). Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know. Ebury Publishing.