Psychological Safety and the Distant Leader



A woman with medium skin and curly dark brown hair sits on a round cushion on the floor with her elbows resting on her knees and her hands covering her face. The image suggests isolation and withdrawal as a stress response and accompanies a blog post about how distant leaders affect team psychological safety.

Everyone, including leaders, reacts to stress differently, but the way that leaders respond to stress affects their team members. When leaders react to stress with insecurity, mistrust, hostility, or social withdrawal, their attitudes and behaviors can cause significant damage to team psychological safety.

Team psychological safety is the shared perception of whether it is safe or risky for team members to show their authentic selves to each other. The presence of fear—whether a leader’s fears or fear of the leader—destroys trust and creates a sense that interpersonal risk-taking is dangerous.

Many people see leaders as those who give orders and assess others; however, leaders who successfully build and maintain high-performing teams focus on setting direction, supporting others, and cultivating psychological safety.1 The leader role calls for the strategic self-awareness to understand and control one’s dysfunctional behavior, or derailers, that may arise during stress, overwork, fatigue, or other situations in which self-management tends to be compromised.

Read on to learn about how we measure derailers, the effects of five specific derailers on psychological safety, and ways leaders can improve team psychological safety.

The Dark Side of Leadership

The Hogan Development Survey (HDS) measures personality strengths that, when overused, can become problematic. Everyone’s personality has dark-side characteristics—potential behaviors stemming from personality strengths that could derail performance. A leader who cares about quality, for example, might overuse that characteristic, becoming obsessive about project details or stalling in fear of making an incorrect decision. A leader who cares about self-sufficiency might overuse that characteristic, appearing tough, aloof, or indifferent to team members. While a commitment to excellence and an appreciation for independence are positive qualities, without moderation they can become risk factors that destroy teams or derail careers.

The HDS consists of 11 scales that are categorized into three clusters that broadly describe stress responses: moving away from others (withdrawal), moving against others (antagonism), or moving toward others (conformity). Most people have one or more elevated scores, and elevations often occur within the same cluster.

The Moving Away cluster is defined by the Excitable, Skeptical, Cautious, Reserved, and Leisurely scales.2 Derailing behaviors stemming from high scores on these scales can be uniquely damaging to psychological safety. Because derailment in this cluster often involves increasing the distance between people as a method for dealing with insecurity, it can be especially instrumental in creating room for people to fear the worst. Characterized by lack of communication or communication that critiques, Moving Away derailers can damage psychological safety by fostering intimidation and by stifling trust and openness.

Excitable

“You force me to express in no uncertain terms how much I have become disappointed with you.”

The Excitable scale describes behaviors that range from calmness and steadiness to volatility and explosiveness. Because they can be prone to intense emotion and struggle to manage pressure, people with a high Excitable score might express their fears or frustrations by seeming moody, tending to overreact, or exhibiting annoyance, tension, or stress.

Skeptical

“I am being mistreated and taken advantage of, and so I am fully justified in responding in kind.”

The Skeptical scale describes behaviors that range from showing trust in others to expecting disappointment or mistreatment. Someone with a high Skeptical score tends to suspect that others harbor ulterior motives. They may appear brooding or defensive and act retaliatory about perceived slights.

Cautious

“I have no option but to point out all the potential problems that could occur, because otherwise you will make changes that could have disastrous consequences.”

The Cautious scale describes behaviors that range from openness to reluctance about trying new methods, technology, or experiences. Highly motivated by fear of embarrassment and failure, people with a high Cautious score may exhibit hesitance in decision-making, analysis paralysis, or obsession with details. They tend to resist risk.

Reserved

“You say that I am not listening to you. You must realize that if you could say anything that is of interest to me, I would listen.”

The Reserved scale describes behaviors that range from socially approachable to socially distant. Someone with a high Reserved score may adopt a tough or harsh communication style and may employ a closed-door policy. Their critical, independent air can damage the transparency and open communication that psychological safety depends on.

Leisurely

“The only reason I have ignored you is because you always interrupt me at a time when you should be doing your own work.”

The Leisurely scale describes behaviors that range from being cooperative, coachable, and supportive to being stubborn or privately resentful. Those with high Leisurely scores may appear friendly but feel hostile, creating doubt about whether they express their thoughts or feelings honestly. Their irritability and passive resistance can make them seem unreliable.

The Moving Away cluster describes the behaviors of a person who may be prone to emotional displays, alert for signs of betrayal, afraid of criticism, distant and uncommunicative, or resentful of authority.2 Moving Away derailers can become problematic when people with elevated scores come under stress or stop self-managing. A leader with any of these qualities out of control would likely struggle to nurture the goodwill, camaraderie, and mutual trust that is necessary for psychological safety.

Understanding Fears and Improving Psychological Safety

It is incumbent upon leaders to address their fears or the way their behavior may create fear in others. Leaders can improve the psychological safety of their teams with their own transparency and a willingness to change.

Understanding Fears

Underlying mental models called schemas, which reflect the basic beliefs we develop about ourselves in early life, tend to frame how we interpret social information.3 For instance, someone who experienced an early betrayal might fear disloyalty and even mistakenly perceive it in others. The strength of one’s schemas, situational factors like stress, and organizational culture all influence the likelihood that derailers will emerge for any individual or leader.

Strategic self-awareness is necessary in overcoming fears. A Harvard Business Review article describes underlying fears as “an active force that drive unproductive behaviors.”4 Understanding the extent to which those behavioral characteristics are strengths and the point at which they begin to cause derailment is vital.

Improving Psychological Safety

In addition to overcoming their individual fears, leaders are responsible for establishing psychological safety and mitigating fear within their teams. It’s an ongoing commitment, and these steps will help.

  1. Assess Personality assessment grants a unique and empowering self-knowledge. When leaders don’t understand their specific derailers, they will struggle to know their reputations, or how others perceive them. Leaders who are aware of their reputations can learn to implement behavioral change to enhance their strengths.

  2. Acknowledge – Everyone has derailing behaviors, and everyone can improve their performance. Leaders who practice transparency create a foundation for psychological safety. Those who own their behaviors and model openness can repair or reinforce trust: “I’m sorry that I acted annoyed with you this morning. I was afraid of losing control of the project, and I let my temper get away from me.”

    Personal growth is a cycle of action, acknowledgement, and reflection. Hogan Founder Robert Hogan, PhD, wrote about the importance of reflection in leadership development: “Reflecting on the outcomes of our actions allows us to understand both their consequences and the reasons for behaving that way in the first place. Our analogy is to athletics, where critical feedback on past performance is a constant feature of life, and where mental rehearsal is used to sharpen and enhance future performance.”5

  3. Adapt – Long-term behavioral modification comes from a leader’s commitment to change. This often involves executive coaching, ongoing feedback from team members, and performance evaluations of interpersonal strategies. Behavioral interventions are more likely to be effective when leaders have addressed the fears that trigger their derailers.4 Adaptation can become habitual when leaders successfully learn to interrupt their own patterns of derailment for the good of the team.

It’s important to remember that a leader isn’t one who has all the answers or never makes mistakes. A leader is someone who accomplishes goals by facilitating team performance. As Amy C. Edmondson, author of The Fearless Organization, writes, “The leader’s job is to create and nurture the culture we all need to do our best work. And so anytime you play a role in doing that, you are exercising leadership.”1

References

  1. Edmondson, A. C. (2019). The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. John Wiley & Sons Inc.
  2. Hogan, R., Hogan, J., & Warrenfeltz, R. (2007). The Hogan Guide: Interpretation and Use of Hogan Inventories. Hogan Press.
  3. Nelson, E., & Hogan, R. (2009). Coaching on the Dark Side. International Coaching Psychology Review, 4(1), 9–21.
  4. Zucker, R., & Gotian, R. (2022, August 18). Facing the Fears That Hold You Back at Work. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2022/08/facing-the-fears-that-hold-you-back-at-work
  5. Hogan, R., & Warrenfeltz, R. (2003). Educating the Modern Manager. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 2(1), 74–84. https://doi.org/10.5465/AMLE.2003.93240434