Leadership in an uncertain world: redefining psychological safety for employees

Uncertainty is naturally anxiety-provoking. In the workplace, it is added to other sources of employee insecurity, such as lack of trust or appreciation, management style, or lack of meaning. How can a leader provide psychological safety in an uncertain world?

In traditional models of leadership, one of the key elements of psychological safety is the leader’s ability to define the path for his or her team. This is essentially predictive. Based on his vision of the future, the leader defines the goals to be achieved. He knows where he needs to go and “clears the horizon” so that his followers can move forward with confidence. Here, safety comes from the leader’s mastery of the predictive dimension. To use an oft-heard phrase, the leader’s role is to “protect the team from uncertainty”. Here, safety comes from a form of guaranteed protection by the leader. The two pillars of this model are knowledge and protection. The implicit contract between the leader and followers is: “You follow me because I know where to go, and I’m committed to protecting you.

But in an uncertain world, where one surprise follows another and the most solid beliefs are weakened, prediction becomes very dangerous. Leaders don’t know which way to turn, or at least they don’t know any more than their teams do. Sometimes they know even less: the higher you are in the hierarchy, the further you are from the field. And yet, in an uncertain and evolving situation, important information is in the field, and the leader often finds himself chasing it. The knowledge pyramid is inverted, undermining the leadership contract.

The second pillar of traditional leadership – protection – is also being challenged. On the one hand, because recent years have shown its limits – leaders haven’t protected many people in the series of surprises and crises we’ve experienced: their fragility has been exposed. Secondly, this paternalistic model of protection no longer corresponds to an age in which people are better informed and aspire to greater autonomy. Psychological safety no longer necessarily comes from protection.

Redefining psychological safety in a world of uncertainty

In a world of uncertainty, psychological safety must be redefined. This means moving away from the paternalistic attitude inherited from the Industrial Revolution and treating team members as adults. In essence, it means saying to them: “I don’t know where the world is going any more than you do. Get over it.” Accepting and explicitly acknowledging reality, however difficult that acceptance may be, is a crucial stage in any transformation. We have to let go of the “Jupiterian” model of the leader who is the leader because he knows everything. This acceptance is a first factor in restoring psychological security, because it consists in recognizing what everyone already knows. It restores the trust without which there can be no leadership.

Admitting that we don’t know where the world is going doesn’t mean we have to resign ourselves to it. That’s what entrepreneurs teach us. Without denying the anxiety-inducing effects of uncertainty, it also has its benefits. A world in motion and change is also a world of opportunities. So we need to shift our focus from the future, which is unpredictable, to the present, which we need to understand. Today, understanding the present is far more important than talking about the future. It’s about putting that understanding into words in a collective way: “This is how we see the world, with its challenges and opportunities,” by making the relevant mental models explicit.

At the heart of psychological safety is the notion of trust. In the old Industrial Revolution model, I feel safe because I trust my boss to know where he’s going and to protect me. Trust comes from clarity of purpose. In the new model, I feel safe because we’re moving confidently into uncharted territory. Trust comes from clarity of purpose. It reflects our shared vision of the present, including recognition of the limits of our knowledge. A shared vision of the present, translated into explicit mental models, is the foundation of any solid collective and the best guarantee of survival and prosperity in an uncertain world. It is the new key to psychological safety. Welcome to the world of adults!

📖 More on uncertainty, read my book: Welcome to Uncertainty !

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🇫🇷French version of this article here.

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