Managers – guilty of unsafety

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I did quick research of the available leadership training on the internet, and after discussions with these training companies, I found that none of them has Psychological Safety on the agenda. Psychological Safety is implicitly covered in topics like feedback, participation, soft skills etc, but cannot be found anywhere in the training catalogues, or explicitly discussed. You can get a leadership certification by attending a course, but when Psychological UNsafety hits you in front of your team, you don’t know how to manage the situation and are therefore not able to walk the talk. These leadership trainings generate the opposite effect, i.e., leaders trusting their certificates over reflecting and acting on the actual need and show the way. Have you ever heard your own manager admitting a mistake? Then you are lucky. Bosses know the definition of Psychological Safety, but they don’t have the tools for coping with Psychological UNsafety. The business targets they are accountable for weigh more than people’s health. There is a huge difference between a real leader and just a boss.

My Agile friends say that Agile is dead and that McKinsey, the big expensive management consultant agency, killed it. I doubt its true, but McKinsey (and others in this field) also supplies a space for leadership to cover their own backs. When these agencies speak, leadership listens, so why not use this opportunity and spread the good things these agencies do, instead of talking about the mess they do with Agile? McKinsey’s three great pieces of advice[1] for building leadership Psychological Safety skills are:

  1. Invest in emotional leadership development experiences and create Aha moments.
  2. Build mechanisms to make development a part of leaders’ day-to-day work.
  3. Go beyond one-off training programs and deploy a scalable system of leadership development.

In point 3 you find what we are missing in general when it comes to leadership training, i.e., to offer it in new ways, like online studying sessions, cross-organisation exchange as liaison officers and Psychological Safety mentorship. But don´t forget to walk the talk. My own inspiration for leadership comes from the sports world and great coaches like Fergusson, Michels, Ancelotti, Cruyff, Rustan and Bengan. But also, from great books like Team of teams (Mc Crystal) and Turn the ship around (Marquet). In the latter Marquet promotes the concept of Intent Based Leadership[2] which means that a team member is trusted to execute anything by expressing his intent instead of asking for permission. Marquet was a nuclear submarine captain who ‘turned the ship around’ from traditional military leadership to a trust based modern leadership. Enabling people to do their jobs and pushing the button for launching rockets thus became his only responsibility. He was, naturally, accountable for the entire ship, but trusted his team to run it. His idea was that, if the team was competent and had clarity, the team was trusted to be in control.

I first doubted, but now I believe this is the way for modern leadership. We must support our leaders and make them let go. Give your manager Mr Marquet’s book as a present from the team and see what happens. That is better than any leadership training! If they can do it in the US Navy – we can do it here.

One of my, and many others’, great sources of leadership inspiration is Bengt “Bengan” Johansson, who sadly passed away in May 2022. He was a game-changer in leadership when coaching the Swedish National Handball Team to many championships in the 80’s and 90’s. His style was all but the traditional authoritarian, and it’s said that he once sat in the stands at a training session just silently waiting for the team to create their own training. More famous is his coaching in the Euro Final 2002 when he, during a critical overtime time-out, just asked the team “what should we do now?” For some people this was a sign of weakness, the coach ‘not knowing’ the direction, but for the players who would become champions ten minutes later, it was pure trust and a paradigm shift in coaching. His players were called “the Bengan boys” and they often did pranks internally. Bengan himself was one of the pranksters as well and got his share in return. Today this leadership style is the norm in Swedish Handball and also in my style, whether I am coaching a sports-, software- or leadership team.

My best advice is for leadership to often use the words “my bad” and to open up for a Psychological Safety culture, with failure as a part of learning.

This is a part of the book Psychological UNsafety from the trenches you can order or read more about here.

[1] Psychological Safety and the critical role of leadership development: 

[2] Intent-Based Leadership: