Is your leadership development program missing a few things?
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Is your leadership development program missing a few things?

Is your leadership development program missing a key ingredient? Acccording to a recent study, it might be.

A McKinsey survey, shows that building psychological safety among employees, which was noted as one of the most important leadership skills, is missing from many leadership development programs.

For the survey, which was administered online, McKinsey contacted 1,200+ executives and team members at a variety of organizations.

These people were asked questions about an array of leadership skills, some of which promote psychological safety, a state defined as one in which employees feel comfortable doing things that imply a level of social risk — such as asking for help, sharing suggestions informally, and challenging the status quo. A number of studies have linked psychological safety with high performance, so leadership qualities that promote it are important.

The survey sought to find out two things: 1) Which skills had a significant impact on the creation of a psychologically safe environment, and 2) how frequently each leadership skill was addressed in development programs.

Important, but less frequent

The survey responses pointed to 10 skills that were typically taught in leadership development programs. Three of the four most often addressed — group dynamics, self-awareness and cultural awareness — were NOT significantly linked with a climate of psychological safety. (Which is not to say that they’re not useful in other contexts.)

Of the six skills that were least frequently addressed, four were considered significant for promoting psychological safety:

  • the ability to develop high-quality relationships in teams,
  • mindful listening,
  • situational humility (ability to suspend judgment in situations where the leader doesn’t know it all), and
  • sponsorship (willingness to enable the success of others ahead of one’s own)

So in sum, psychological safety took something of a back seat in the average leadership development curriculum.

Supportive, consultative and challenging

McKinsey said the skills that promoted psychological safety did so by contributing to two desirable leadership styles. These were termed supportive/consultative leadership on one hand and challenging leadership on the other. The two styles contrast, but also complement one another.

McKinsey’s consultants wrote that the first task for leaders who want employees to enjoy psychological safety is to make them feel supported and consulted. Then, a leader’s next task is to challenge employees to do their best work. Employees who feel psychologically safe will rise to the occasion, McKinsey said. “They feel energized by the work, able to complete the work, and enabled to take necessary risks in the process,” McKinsey added. “These employees often request help from one another — and also offer it.”

With these findings in mind, you may want to look at the way you develop leaders in your organization. Are you equipping these people with the right skills to make their employees feel safe, and unleash their highest level of productivity?

This blog post is based on the following white paper: McKinsey & Co. (2021) Psychological Safety and the Critical Role of Leadership Development.


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