A Reflection on leadership and psychological safety


I came across a draft I had prepared about 14 months ago ahead of a Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ) DEN’s presentation to the DCJ Board. It had some good content, but were I to write it today, I would update it considerably. In this essay I want to convert that draft into a current body of thought based on 10 months or so of research.


Early in 2020 the DCJDEN embarked on a patient journey to Change the Conversation about mental illness. This was initiated because of the stigma connected to the terminology of mental illness. It implied a cognitive impairment – and something managers and colleagues did not feel comfortable talking with the staff member with the diagnosis.

In fact, many people who are labelled as having a mental illness are more commonly experiencing depression or anxiety – more of an emotional injury. They have no cognitive impairment. However, cognitive impairment can arise from stress, and this can come from a variety of circumstances, including when anxiety or depression is ramped up. 

Current brain science research is quite clear that there is a cognitive impairment that arises from stress in people who would be seen as psychologically healthy as well. 

Over 2020, the DEN worked with the Global Leadership Foundation (GLF) to develop a series of innovative workshops on emotional self-awareness. Each workshop series (3) had 4-5 sessions of 1.5 hours a week. The aim was to enable participants to become confident in sharing their inner states using simple concepts and non-clinical language. The hope was that these workshops might be taken up within DCJ. This has not happened because of severe budget constraints – still a prevailing factor.

DCJ did undertake to incorporate some GLF material in its leadership development program – as a DIAP project. Its goal is to stimulate leaders/managers to develop a capacity for more empathic engagement with staff with disability – and staff more generally.

The key consideration behind Changing the Conversation was if there was a wide sense of confidence in talking about inner states using non-clinical language the issue of having a diagnosed condition would not have to arise. We all experience anxieties, low times, and stress because of work related circumstances, or in our private lives.

What an alternative normal might look like

Emotionally healthy and self-aware people are confident in talking about their inner states – using secular non-technical language. But they need to trust the people they talk with, especially if they are in a subordinate position and they are seeking some accommodation from their manager or team leader.

That lack of trust is reported often, and it is accompanied by reports of being treated in an insensitive, demeaning, or degrading manner that can itself be injurious, and even cruel.

This behaviour is not intentional. But at some stage a refusal, or failure, to be aware of the impact of one’s behaviour must be considered intentional. It is commonly reported that managers whose conduct is unintentionally harmful also seem to intentionally avoid situations (learning and development events) where that kind of behaviour is identified as something to be addressed.

The idea of psychological safety is gaining recognition are a key concept for a contemporary workplace. In a psychologically safe environment staff feel it is okay to question or challenge ideas that put by high status or more assertive staff (executives or managers). Decisions are not handed down based on power, but are co-created, using the knowledge and perspectives of all members of a team, or all participants in a meeting.

Psychological safety exists when a staff member can ask for an accommodation or an adjustment to deal with a personal matter without being required to provide details so a manager can adjudicate on whether the reason meets their criteria for assenting to the request.

A psychologically safe workplace accommodates diversity of personal backgrounds and circumstances, cultures without overt or subtle acts of discrimination or exclusion. It is where a staff member can ‘bring their whole self to work’ and ‘belong’. Beneath these sentiments dwell a genuine aspiration. The translation of the sentiment into genuine and effective action is another matter.

The critical elements in establishing such a normal state

Executive leaders, managers, and team members all must work toward developing the personal attributes that contribute to psychological safety. But there is clear evidence that leadership on doing this must be exhibited by senior executives and modelled by managers.

Where team members are motivated to create psychological safety, their efforts can be sent underground by a lack of support from leaders. Where teams are not motivated to create such an environment and there is no leadership or modelling from executives or managers the resultant workplace culture is toxic – and a perilous environment for people vulnerable to bullying or exclusion – and that includes staff with disability.

The NSW Public Service Commission’s (PSC) Age of Inclusion campaign has a manifesto which says, in part, “Today leaders inspire with self-awareness and empathy.” This would address the issues raised by staff with psychological injury. But how do we get there unless we intentionally develop those skills? The sad thing about the campaign is that it did nothing by way of guidance. What’s the point of setting a destination if there is no map to get there, and no plan either?

Of the PSC’s 20 capabilities in its Capability Framework, 17 arguably require competence in Emotional Intelligence and self-awareness.

However, there is no widespread promotion of Emotional Intelligence, and there’s not a lot of readily accessible training or developmental material readily available.

The impact of this situation is twofold:

  • Staff needing to seek accommodation because of their psychological state are not confident in approaching their team leader/manager.
  • Team leaders/managers who do not have a requisite level of self-awareness and empathy are unaware of the impact of their behaviour.

Is this just another burden put on team leaders, managers and executives who are already stretched? No. This is part of core business in a knowledge economy. Staff are the ‘tools’ and they must be looked after. Psychological injury is far more prevalent than physical injury, and it receives scant attention.

While Emotional Intelligence, Self-Awareness and Empathy are not equivalents; they are sufficiently linked to make two observations valid:

  • They are attributes that are critical in high performing teams – not only for leaders, but all team members.
  • The best high performing teams are diverse, and they can be psychologically safe if well managed. Research on high performing teams suggests that, depending on the context, they can be highly competitive and demanding. But that is less likely the case in the public sector. Even so competitive pressure isn’t inherently harmful.

Sound recruiting practices must ensure that new leaders in public sector possess the requisite personal competencies that will ensure that unintentional (or intentional) injury to vulnerable staff is not perpetuated. But, at the moment there is no evidence that self-awareness and empathy are attributes being sought in candidates for manager/leader roles

There are also current leaders who not only cause injury, but who lack the motivation and insight to initiate self-directed efforts to address their deficits. They are likely to avoid exposure to experiences that will challenge their approach as well. Unless there is an internal mechanism for identifying these individuals and providing the support they need to adapt their performance, they will continue to inflict psychological injury on subordinate staff.

Senior leaders are yet to fully appreciate that allowing such individuals to remain in leadership roles without addressing their unintended impact on vulnerable staff represents important impediments to the development of genuinely safe and inclusive workplaces:

  • Staff with psychological injury will remain unconfident in seeking accommodations critical to their well-being – and this may result in depressed performance and absenteeism.
  • There is an increased risk of workers’ compensation claims to support extended absences from work.
  • There is an increased risk that return to work following a workers’ compensation-based absence will fail. 

Research on staff loyalty, commitment and performance demonstrates that staff do not work for organisations so much as their work teams. The manager/team leader is, therefore, the lynch pin in driving high performance and ensuring staff wellbeing. Add to this retention of staff and you have a crucial role that must be performed to a contemporary standard.


There is, I believe, an imperative need to review how leaders are recruited – at executive and manager levels. Needless to say; this infers a need to review leadership development programs for current staff in those roles as well.

Psychological safety is a must have these days if the sector wants high performance, and the goal of being a ‘world class public service’ not mere fluff with nothing substantial behind it.

Several things must happen:

  • The imperative of recruiting psychologically mature individuals capable of self-awareness and empathy must be understood and committed to.
  • A sector-wide minimum standard concerning the personal attributes competencies must be set and monitored. In fact, a minimum standard should be set for leadership capabilities – and at a far higher level than current. No capability below Advanced should be okay for grade 11/12 positions manager/leader roles and higher.
  • Agency leadership teams must ensure developmental activity is available for current manager/leaders, including requiring informal and self-directed learning and development as part of their professional development obligations.
  • A culture of effective leader accountability is needed. This is the weakest aspect of any public sector.

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