Psychologically Safe Spaces for Leadership Development


Psychological safety is well known as an essential ingredient in the creation of high performing teams.  But psychological safety is also vital in the creation of safe ‘transitional’ spaces for leaders to develop.

The idea that leaders are forged in crucibles has revealed how adversity develops leaders, and CCL has recently suggested that ‘heat experiences’ can develop vertical leadership by disrupting and disorienting habitual ways of seeing and thinking.

And traditionally, of course, much leadership development sought to build character, often by putting people into fight-or-flight situations.  As a result of these encounters, it was assumed, participants would miraculously transform into leaders back at work.

We believe, however, that leadership is fundamentally a choice.  People choose – or choose not – to rise to the leadership challenges they meet in their worlds.  These challenges take many forms, from turning around a failing organisation, keeping people motivated in tough times, taking on a bully, balancing multiple demands, or creating a better life for their family.

Breakthroughs in neuroscience remind us that the brain’s capacity for perspective and analytical reasoning is easily shut down.  Negative emotions trigger our reptilian brain and close down our propensity for thinking and learning.  We therefore believe that a critical design principle in any effective leadership development initiative is to create a psychologically safe space for people to think, learn, talk and, ultimately, to choose.  So how do we do this?

On our award-winning Enabling Positive Futures (EPF) programme for Old Mutual Wealth we used three design strategies to create a psychologically safe space for participants to reflect on their current leadership behaviour, to identify work-related challenges that required a leadership response, and to decide what leadership qualities they wanted to add to their repertoire in order to exercise leadership in a practical way in work or life.

EPF was designed as an invitation to change, not an instruction.  The programme was positioned by Old Mutual’s senior leaders as an opportunity for participants to choose – or choose not – to play a bigger game on a larger stage.  Participants were encouraged to be curious about how they might strengthen the leadership impact they were already making, rather than being blamed for not being leaders.

EPF created structures within structures within which participants could build a deeper level of trust to reveal vulnerabilities, discuss their leadership challenges, and develop capacity for listening, mindfulness, feedback and dialogue.  ‘Home groups’ of 5-6 participants fostered reflection and support and provided distance and perspective from which to generate insights and tactics.

EPF encouraged vulnerability and risk-taking, using exercises such as a ‘metaphorical swimming pool’. Participants moved to a place ‘in the pool’ that reflected how they were feeling about their role.  Some went to the changing rooms, or climbed onto a diving board, or mimicked treading water in the deep-end, or racing up and down a swim lane, or sat on the poolside.  The role of the facilitator was key: when people feel listened to with an open mind and heart their feelings of safety increase and they are inclined to push against the edges of their comfort zones.

Creating a psychologically safe space for leadership development does not mean letting people hide or avoid.  It’s just the opposite.  Leaders develop when they choose to take on real and difficult challenges.  An environment that promotes perspective not anxiety, self-expression not criticism, support not isolation, and creativity not compliance, increases a person’s willingness and ability to engage in serious leadership development work.

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