Create a Culture of Psychological Safety

A culture of psychological safety requires leaders to model openness and to allow people to pass if desired.

After more than a year of working remotely—either from home (WFH) or in a hybrid situation—concern about mental health has emerged to be front and center. Leaders have had to pay attention to the health of employees now more than ever. A phrase that has become common is the importance of “psychological safety.”

Recently, I listened to a podcast interview with Tami Simon, founder and CEO of Sounds True, and Daniel Goleman, author of the book, “Emotional Intelligence,” which has been released as a special 25th Anniversary edition. Goleman shared this example: “One of the interesting things I found around the world, is when I asked people, ‘Tell me about the best boss you ever had. And tell me about the boss you hated the most in one word.’ The collection of words for the best boss, the boss people love, is Emotional Intelligence—the different qualities, emotions. And the boss people hate has a lack of that.”

Goleman defines Emotional Intelligence (EQ) as having four parts:

  1. Having self-awareness
  2. Using this awareness to self-manage
  3. Being aware of the feelings of others, which is empathy
  4. Using empathy to manage relationships.

Leaders who have a high EQ create a culture where people feel safe to express how they are feeling.

Rebuilding the Culture

Leadership guru Peter Drucker is famous for saying, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” But COVID might have eaten culture for breakfast, and it is now time to rebuild the culture. While there are many ways to do this, it is often the little things that can make the biggest difference.

As I work with leaders, I advocate using ice-breakers as a way to check in with people. Executive coach Christopher Littlefield provides questions and activities to help rebuild cultures—there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Littlefield also had an article in Forbes sharing some sample questions to use as ice-breakers:

How are you feeling about your ability to keep up with everything at work and home?

1 – I feel like a sinking ship most days, to 10 – Full steam ahead!

Energy Level: What is your energy level right now?

1 – Completely drained, to 10 – Fully charged

Support at Work: How supported do you feel right now at work?

1 – Not supported at all, to 10 – Fully supported

How are you feeling about returning to the office? 

1 – Not ready at all, to 10 – I can’t wait!

Communication Effectiveness: How do you feel we are communicating on our team?

1 – Not communicating well at all, to 10 – Communicating clearly, efficiently, and at our best

Feeling Valued: How valued do you feel right now at work?

1 – Not valued at all, to 10 – Extremely valued

Allow a few minutes for people to write down a response and then allow them to share. A culture of psychological safety requires leaders to model openness and to allow people to pass if desired.

Other Ice-Breakers

In his book, “75+ Team-Building Activities for Remote Teams,” Littlefield explains his 1/6 rule. “For every hour of meeting time, one-sixth of that time, or 10 minutes, should be used for relationship building.” Ten minutes is an investment worth making to help people feel safe and comfortable whether they are back in an office, WFH, or working in a hybrid situation.

Another great source for ice-breakers comes from Rob Walker in his book, “The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy in the Everyday.” In his related newsletter, The Art of Noticing, Walker collects and compiles ice-breakers from readers. They are quick ways to get to know people better and to help them feel comfortable and safe.

In fact, leaders should make onboarding and reboarding employees a priority. A healthy corporate culture is the “glue” that holds the organization together. In its absence, the organization can fall apart. Culture also can be viewed as the “invisible tapestry” that weaves people together. When “threads” are broken, employees feel disconnected.

As leaders put organizations back together again, psychological safety should be a priority. If organizations want to retain and recruit employees, workers need to feel safe to bring their whole selves to work. There has never been a more important time for leaders to be Emotionally Intelligent by demonstrating empathy and care in all relationships.

Jann E. Freed
Jann E. Freed, PhD, is an author, speaker, coach, and leadership development consultant. Her forthcoming book is “Breadcrumb Legacy: How Great Leaders Live a Life Worth Remembering” (Routledge Publishing, 2023). For more information, visit