Leader, Know Thyself

Psychological Safety
Date Published

In the ancient classical world, rulers and statesmen consulted the oracle at Delphi about important decisions. At the entrance to the oracle’s temple, a stone inscription read gnothi seauton, or “know thyself”. Of the 147 maxims inscribed on the temple’s walls, Socrates declared this one the most essential: to “know thyself”, or self-awareness, is the beginning of all wisdom.

Today, self-awareness remains a key leadership strength. Self-aware leaders understand how their behaviors impact their team, peers, and other key stakeholders. This equips them to create psychological safety, which is directly linked to high performance in teams (Edmondson, 1999).

"Know Thyself": Self-aware Leaders are Strategic

Self-awareness is the ability to close the gap between (a) how you see yourself and (b) how others see you. But how self-aware are people really? Dr. Tasha Eurich's research shows that 90% of people think they are self-aware, but only 10% actually are. When leaders overestimate their level of self-awareness, they don’t fully recognize how their behaviors impact people across the organization – from their direct team and peers to customers and other key stakeholders.

Examples of low self-awareness include when leaders think that they: speak passionately about an issue, but others perceive their passion as defensiveness; provide constructive feedback, but others perceive it as sharp criticism; interrupt people to keep meetings on track, but others perceive it as disrespectful. This gap in a leader’s self-awareness can cause damage to their team.

Self-awareness helps leaders to make better decisions about how they show up in front of others. Self-aware leaders don’t act impulsively or reactively: instead, they step back from situations and act in knowledge of how their actions and behaviors will impact team members. They use this perspective to inform strategic decision-making and action, which equips them to lead their teams more effectively.

Self-awareness is the Foundation of Psychological Safety

Psychological safety creates “an environment in which people believe they can speak up candidly with ideas, questions, concerns, and even mistakes” (Edmondson, 2020).

Our model of psychological safety maps to five key areas that drive engagement and performance in teams: (1) Innovation, where people feel safe to share unconventional ideas; (2) Learning, where people treat mistakes as learning opportunities; (3) Honesty, where people feel like they can flag risks and concerns; (4) Inclusivity, where everyone feels included, regardless of their personal characteristics or social attributes; and (5) Value, where everyone feels valued for their unique strengths and contributions (Edmondson, 2018; Radecki, 2018). The foundation of these five pillars is self-awareness.

Self-aware leaders actively choose to invite their team’s candid feedback and ideas. They are also more likely to respond productively when they hear “bad news”, and to create an environment that values “intelligent failures” that drive innovation. Even in high-stakes situations, self-aware leaders behave in a way that promotes psychological safety.

Psychological Safety Drives High Team Performance

Psychological safety unlocks peak performance and innovation. High performance standards and high psychological safety create a learning culture. A learning culture is one where people learn from “intelligent failures”: the kinds of mistakes that are radical and creative, not just careless errors (Sitkin, 1992; Edmondson, 2011). Organizations with a strong learning culture are 92% more likely to innovate new products to drive business development.

By contrast, high performance standards and low psychological safety create an anxiety culture (Edmondson, 2008). Here, team members are afraid to speak up, which makes them less likely to share out-of-the-box ideas. They also tend to withhold concerns, which may prevent them from flagging risks that could impact the organization. Studies in knowledge management estimate that this can cost companies up to USD 47 million a year.

Psychological safety is key to achieving high performance standards. To develop and embed psychological safety in an organization, leaders need to lead by example. Leaders are role models: if they adopt psychologically safe behaviors, they encourage everyone else to do the same. To do this, they must first build self-awareness. Self-awareness helps leaders act and behave in ways that create psychological safety.

Leaders are role models: if they adopt psychologically safe behaviors, they encourage everyone else to do the same.

How to Build Self-awareness as a Leader

  • Take 5 seconds before you respond to “bad news”: In high-stakes situations, it can be tough to step back and reflect. Take 5 seconds to get a clearer view, then make a strategic decision about how to respond
  • Leverage psychometric assessments: According to a MIT study, self-aware CEOs take assessments like NEO-PI-3 to identify their strengths and weaknesses. Use psychometric data to target specific behaviors which can drive higher psychological safety
  • Find out what others think about you: To identify blind spots, ask a trusted peer or mentor about your reputation as a leader. Actively seek viewpoints that are different to your own. What do other people think are your best and worst leadership characteristics?
  • Keep your ears to the ground: Listen to what your team members’ non-verbal cues say about your leadership style. Consider their body language and how they show up at work; take this as provocation to reflect on your own actions and behaviors

Key Takeaways

  • Self-aware leaders are strategic: they step back from situations and consider how their actions and behaviors will impact team members
  • Self-awareness is the foundation of psychological safety. Self-awareness helps leaders act and behave in ways that create psychological safety
  • Psychological safety drives higher team performance

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