Can leaders encourage vulnerability when everything needs to be done right?

This article looks at how leaders can develop psychological safety within teams and how they can encourage individuals to speak up when they need help or when mistakes have been made.

Failure, or the importance of creating psychological safety in the workplace? Nobody likes to fail. It’s not comfortable, it’s embarrassing, it induces anxiety, sleepless nights and all sorts of other tell-tale symptoms. Unfortunately for leaders, many of these symptoms remain hidden. Or, leaders fail to spot them for reasons, stretching from they care but are too busy, through to they don’t spend time with their people and their emotional well-being is of little consequence.

Many of us will have experience working for a manager or leader, who has demonstrated little or no engagement with the team or us as individuals, unless it is to bark directions and hammer home performance targets. The danger of this is, that when there is no meaningful connection between a manager and their team, the individuals will always fear failure much more so, than where there is a supportive relationship between them and their manager.

Being afraid…

What is fear? Humans have two responses to fear. There is the biochemical one which floods our bodies with hormones such as adrenaline to prepare for a “fight or flight” response. There is also the emotional response where individuals worry, get anxious and when bad enough fear manifests itself physically with symptoms such as chest pains and nervousness.

In the workplace, what managers should be conscious of, is, that for many they will try to hide their fear whilst avoiding aspects of the job which cause fear and hence the problem begins and nothing gets talked about or addressed. Hiding performance from managers is not only a problem in terms of a results, but for many businesses it can result in individuals taking unethical steps to hide their mistakes, simply because they fear the consequences. And the consequences are…?

It doesn’t matter how experienced you are, no one likes to be publicly embarrassed and most people will avoid it at all costs. Throw into this a manager or client who chooses the wrong time, audience and language to give you a dressing down and suddenly it’s not a surprise that most people will go to length to avoid it. Trust plummets and individuals withdraw and become sceptical and apprehensive. But we can’t be mistake free all of the time, so what should we do? Should failure be the new norm and should people learn to thrive on it?

The world as we know it continues to change. Commentators have been using the acronym VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) for the past few years and this past year has shown that nothing could be truer. The world has become more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous which means that decision making must always be caveated with the fact that it was the right decision at that time, with the information that was available. Every person I have ever met would agree that they have 20/20 vision with hindsight, when the facts and context are stable and not influenced by one hundred competing factors.

Matthew Syed wrote a book called Black Box Thinking which considers the methodologies which the airline industry employ using black boxes on aircraft to record and supply data which others can learn from to enhance performance and learnings from things that go wrong.

In 2009 Captain Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger was piloting an Airbus A320 taking off from New York City’s La Guardia Airport. Shortly after it took off there was a bird strike with a flock of Canada geese, causing the engines to fail and plane to lose all its power.

“Sully” landed the plane calmly and professionally in the Hudson River, saving the lives of all 150 passengers on board. All of the training that he had undergone and the experience he had as a pilot obviously played its part in the successful outcome and the planes black box allowed others to learn from what he experienced that day. It has not always been that way.

Previous to the introduction of black boxes in aircraft and the amnesty period in which pilots could report mistakes the airline industry was experiencing disasters every year, which were not being learnt from. The introduction of the black box and the review it allowed, created a new way of approaching “failure” and drove up safety knowledge and practice.

Embracing failure clearly has its benefits. But what type of failure should be acceptable? Incompetent failure where an individual doesn’t recognise a blind spot or simply doesn’t have the skillset to do what is needed should never be tolerated and feedback to the individual is key. But the bridge between what is an acceptable and what is not acceptable is learning. As Henry Ford said, “the only real mistake is the one with no real learning from it.”

So perhaps this is where the nugget of gold lies, if we keep learning, then we can keep growing our ability and competence and in the words of Walt Disney: “If you can dream it, you can do it.”

So, doesn’t his lead to more innnovative solutions and opportunities in the future? What is there to be scared of? Fundamentally creating psychological safety comes down to the ability of leaders and managers to lean into their people and put the hours into understanding the challenges and concerns which exist.

The good news is though …. It can be done! Top tips for managers and leaders are:

  • Make sure your team know that you are engaged with them
  • Show you want to understand 
  • Avoid blame and focus on learning, and what needs to happen next
  • Hone your emotional intelligence and be self-aware whilst encouraging others to do the same
  • Handle negativity swiftly, don’t diminish optimism by letting negativity wallow
  • Include people in decision-making, help them feel engaged
  • Be open to feedback and learn from it
  • Provide a safety net for your team, make them know they can trust you

Not everyone will like this article, it will feel like such a leap to actively encourage failure. But those who embrace it will open up people and possibilities to develop. In a world which is constantly moving, being adaptable and being able to learn from times when things aren’t perfect seems like a pretty good thing to encourage.


This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. © Shoosmiths LLP 2024.


Read the latest articles and commentary from Shoosmiths or you can explore our full insights library.