An article published this week on HBR.org indirectly identified another casualty of low psychological safety: future leadership.

In the article, the authors highlighted three key reasons why capable people are reluctant to lead. Laziness or inertia did not make the list, but if we give the Homer Simpson who is in all of us an opportunity to take over, his influence could be a fourth contributor!

The three causes of reluctance which were identified are:

  • Interpersonal risk which is the perceived or real fear of damaged relationships with our (former) peers when we are now leading them
  • Image risk which is the fear that our peers might think badly of us for taking on a leadership role
  • The risk of being personally blamed if the people we are leading are unable to achieve team goals

What was very surprising to me is that the authors never made any explicit references to psychological safety, and yet that is an effective vaccine to prevent these ailments.

Later in the same article, the authors provided some suggestions on how senior leaders can reduce these fears by:

  • Actively encouraging and supporting those junior colleagues who might be reluctant about taking on leadership roles. This could include actions such as publicly recognizing those who were willing to “step up”.
  • Demonstrating ways of effectively managing conflict so that these future leaders learn to recognize the differences between task-related, healthy conflicts and relationship-oriented, unhealthy ones. This will help staff to become less worried about how to handle the team conflicts which they will inevitably face.
  • Reducing the probability of failure by finding low risk opportunities for staff to lead. When staff are able to successfully fulfill their first few leadership roles, they are likely to be more willing to take on riskier ones.

All three of these are also recognized as appropriate actions for cultivating psychological safety.

Ralph Nader said “The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.

Producing more leaders means that we need to help our staff to overcome the reluctance to lead. To do so, the ability to build psychological safety within teams needs to be given the same weighting when evaluating leadership competencies as utilizing strategic thinking or demonstrating good judgment and hence it deserves to be explicitly called out in such articles.

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