“Everybody makes mistakes”: What Hannah Montana can teach us about leadership.

August 18, 2021

“Oh!” It’s Monday again – and how much we enjoy going back to work is affected by many factors. On the one hand, it depends on whether our jobs are fun and fulfilling. Even more significantly, on the other hand: whether we feel comfortable at our place of work and with the interaction we have with our team and managers. Both factors ultimately determine how well we (can) work. The concept of psychological safety addresses the latter and contains applicable points of reference for New Work environments where employee retention and well-being have high priority. 

What is psychological safety?

Amy Edmondson, professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School who coined the term, defines it in her TEDxHSGE Talk as: “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes”. As such, psychological safety is to feel that you can be yourself at work, you can take risks and be vulnerable without fearing negative consequences. It’s about creating a work environment which instills trust, where openness and vulnerability are embraced. Employees are not ostracized for their mistakes, but rather these occurrences are viewed as an opportunity to learn. Research has shown that work-related psychological safety is a cornerstone for taking adaptive and innovative action — and therefore is essential for our rapidly changing working world.

Why do we need psychological safety at work? 

People don’t like making mistakes  —  and they like admitting their mistakes even less. Yet adaptive behavior is also part of human nature, it discourages us from raising questions or disagreeing with management. This can lead to a working situation where sharing ideas, concerns or questions with each other becomes impossible, resulting in a significant loss of potential. In particular, this can be seen with knowledge workers, whose main resource is their knowledge. Edmonson points out that people hesitate to share, use or integrate their knowledge if they lack a sense of psychological safety. Consequently, if workers feel encouraged to pose questions or rock the boat, they can develop into the drivers of innovation and change instead of just stoically completing their tasks. When employees experience psychological safety, the workplace becomes populated with engaged and motivated workers who are more keen on learning and development and delivering better performance – and the employees themselves feel more comfortable, self-assured and appreciated. According to Timothy R. Clark, implementing psychological safety creates a sense of inclusion, sets learning processes in motion, creates new momentum, and encourages employees to contribute their own ideas and thoughts as well as challenge the status quo.

How can leadership instill psychological safety?

Of course, everyone can contribute to creating a feeling of psychological safety at the workplace, yet it’s especially important for team leaders to take on this task. Leaders assume the function of a role model, and within this role they are able to authentically convey the behaviorial conduct which fosters psychological safety. Amy Edmondson has identified three simple elements which team leaders should consider when integrating psychological safety at the workplace: 

  1. Recognize work as a mutual learning experience: We live in a complex world which requires exposure to multiple perspectives and voices in order to maintain a clear understanding of the world. Therefore, leaders need to explicitly demonstrate that interdependency exists, uncertainty is normal, and that every single voice will be heard. 
  2. Acknowledge your own fallibility: Like Hannah Montana said: “Everybody makes mistakes”. Leaders set the tone and an important example when they communicate to their employees that it’s entirely okay to make a mistake, to be approached about it and to react positively to criticism. Actively seeking feedback is also a great way to learn and grow. 
  3. Stay curious: Curiosity is an excellent personality trait — and an important strategical instrument for establishing communicative spaces in a natural manner. 

The right team atmosphere is essential for creating psychological safety at the workplace. It’s here that leaders act as a catalyst in fostering psychological safety by modelling and reinforcing the corresponding conduct. A positive working atmosphere where psychological safety is ensured is certainly beneficial for every team and company. It increases not only productivity, but also the happiness everyone feels when they say: “Oh, it’s Monday again!”