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Psychological safety, emotional intelligence, and leadership in a time of flux

23rd Dec, 2020

Uncertainty, coupled with the new remote-work environment in many companies triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, has created an entirely new set of challenges for organizations and their leaders.  In a June 2020 interview, McKinsey spoke with Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, to discuss these new challenges and how their leaders can respond.

Before COVID, many leaders would wander around the workplace to foment connections among employees and to inculcate a shared vision for their organizations. Today, such physical interaction is not possible.  But a digitally-driven set of conversations, conducted among small groups, can still work to develop the “connective tissue linking actions to a shared vision for the future,” according to Edmondson.

Edmondson, who recently joined Starling as an Academic Advisor, defines psychological safety as “an absence of interpersonal fear” and stated that, when it is present, “people are able to speak up with work-relevant content.” 

In an environment where everyone is concerned about they physical safety (e.g., the threat of Covid-illness), a focus on psychological safety becomes all the more important.  And shared fears, Edmondson explained, might in fact allow people to become more open with colleagues, and to feel freer to share their thoughts and concerns. As such, if harnessed conscientiously, Covid-driven workplace disruptions may actually work to help increase psychological safety.

In recent years, organizations worldwide have recognized the importance of psychological safety to sound company culture. In a digital workplace, where traditional staff monitoring is much more difficult, it is more important than ever that employees share a sense of purpose and are willing to speak up when something is wrong.  To facilitate this, Edmondson emphasized, leaders must avoid projecting overconfidence and, instead, strive to cultivate team dynamics that aim towards problem-solving amidst uncertainty. 

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