What It Looks Like to Create Psychological Safety and Accountability

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Authored by

NLI Staff
In the pursuit of results, leaders don’t have to choose between kid gloves or command-and-control.

Shawn is a thoughtful manager in a large organization. This quarter, he’s been given aggressive goals for his team to achieve. As a conscientious leader, he knows these goals might feel too ambitious to some folks; however, he also knows that his managers expect a lot from his team, and he doesn’t want to let the company down.

Shawn feels a tension that many leaders are feeling post-pandemic. It’s the tension between wanting to create a team where people are held accountable, much like how organizations functioned pre-2020, but also wanting to preserve the team’s well-being and sense of psychological safety, which many leaders have prioritized since the pandemic.

Often, leaders feel they must choose one or the other — accountability or psychological safety — even if they know both qualities are important. Research suggests the best way to do that is to recognize that these aren’t opposing forces. In fact, high-performing teams ought to rely on both.

The false dilemma

It turns out there are two kinds of accountability: punitive accountability and growth-oriented accountability. Many of us are familiar with the punitive kind, especially at work. It’s when a manager says, “Get this done or else!” That “or else” suggests a consequence for poor performance, such as a bad review or even getting fired. Punitive accountability reflects a fixed mindset because it demands perfection rather than improvement.

But there’s another kind of accountability that actually improves how teams operate. Growth-oriented accountability focuses on the benefits of striving to reach an ambitious goal by adopting a growth mindset, valuing progress over perfection. Great coaches get this right. They remind their athletes of the triumph and glory that comes from hours of practice, enabling elite-level performance.

This second kind is the framework that supports building psychological safety in teams. When people know failure can happen and that they won’t be punished for honest mistakes, they’re free to focus on the work rather than the stress of underperforming or being seen as bad at their job.

Dr. Amy Edmondson, one of the leading psychological safety researchers, calls this the “learning zone.” When growth-oriented accountability and psychological safety are both high, people feel comfortable taking risks in the pursuit of improvement. If either condition is low, team performance will suffer.

To get the most out of your team, strive for creating high psychological safety and growth-oriented accountability whenever possible.

Psychological safety without accountability

Let’s say Shawn hasn’t come across this research yet. He decides he’d rather protect people’s well-being than stress them out. Unfortunately, taking the focus off of accountability also removes the focus on performance standards. Shawn thinks he’s creating a psychologically safe culture, but really, he’s creating an ineffective culture of niceness.

Shawn holds a kickoff meeting to share the quarterly goals with the team. He begins by undermining leadership’s new strategy, saying his bosses don’t know how much pressure the team has been under. He tells the team to do their best but understands if the goals are too ambitious.

Shawn also lets people know he’ll meet with them in their one-on-ones to see how each person feels about their goals. He says he wants to make sure no one feels overwhelmed.

People leave the meeting with mixed feelings. They are comforted by Shawn’s words, but they’re still aware they’ll be judged for their performance.

Accountability without psychological safety

What about the other scenario, where Shawn holds his team accountable but fails to create psychologically safe working conditions? In this case, Shawn makes the mistake of focusing only on results and outcomes. He doesn’t offer people the security to take risks that would benefit the team.

At the kickoff meeting, Shawn gives it to his team straight: He needs them to work even harder than last quarter. He tells them failure isn’t an option because leadership is counting on them to hit their new targets.

He also lets people know he’ll meet with them one-on-one to go over the new goals. These are non-negotiable but fair, he says, because everyone’s goals are getting more ambitious. Shawn doesn’t share anything with the team about his own goals.

The team leaves the meeting feeling uncertain, uncomfortable with taking risks, and a bit fearful of the months to come.

Putting it all together

However, if Shawn comes to understand how accountability, growth mindset, and psychological safety work together to create high performance, he can start practicing a more nuanced, brain-friendly form of leadership.

This time, when he holds the kickoff meeting, he lets the team know that each person plays an important part in the team’s overall success, and that he’ll meet with them one-on-one to go over the new responsibilities in more depth. The purpose of these one-on-one meetings is to paint a picture of what great looks like for each team member.

In the meeting, Shawn also shares what he’s personally responsible for. He makes it clear he’s not exempt from the challenge so that everyone knows he’s not merely barking orders; he’s an active participant in the shared mission of the team. He will act as a role model whose behaviors his team members can follow.

Finally, Shawn tells everyone that because the goals are so ambitious, there’s a good chance the group will miss its targets at some point. Even though he believes everyone is up to the challenge, it’s always possible that somebody might slip up, including him. But he reminds them that failure is an essential ingredient of success; it’s how they’ll grow and get better over time.

If someone does slip up, Shawn plans to address the failure head-on. He won’t minimize its importance — rather, he’ll explain how it affects the strategy moving forward, include the person in the process for solving the problem, and discuss ways to learn from the experience so it doesn’t happen again.

To be sure, Shawn’s work has just begun. Holding his team accountable is an ongoing process that involves giving regular feedback and direction, reassuring people of their safety within the group and focusing on the lessons to be learned. Accountability is not simply a box to check in a meeting.

With this focus on accountability, growth mindset, and psychological safety, Shawn is well-poised to lead his team through whatever challenges they may encounter.

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