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Understand the Psychological Theories of Leadership

We are all leaders and followers in one aspect or the other. Leadership is fundamental in collectivizing a certain vision and ensuring others are mobilized to accomplish that goal. Leaders, whether an individual or a group, can influence others and instigate group-oriented behavior in place of individual-oriented actions. Successful leaders often have the qualities of adaptability, high social intelligence, self-awareness, prioritization, and self-mastery.

The new picture of leadership

Recently, a new leadership framework has emerged, leading to (pun intended) better performances. Instead of the image of a leader as the absolute, unquestionable authority, this new perspective sees them as effective and efficient only if they consider the opinions and principles of their followers. In place of enforcing obedience with reinforcements and punishments, leaders should be able to shape and build off what the followers genuinely want to go through a productive discussion with them.

How does leadership connect to psychology?

Psychology, put very simply, is the study of mind and behavior. Leadership is using different minds and motivating behaviors to achieve specific goals. Psychological concepts like motivation, drive, emotional intelligence, self-awareness, autonomy, relationship management, and mindfulness are all relevant and influential to leadership. Psychology holds the answer to questions like:

– How can employee morale be boosted?

– How can employees stay motivated toward a goal?

– How can negotiations be successful?

– How can conflicts be resolved?

– How can one develop trust in a professional context?

– How can one fuel employees into generating innovative solutions?

– How can one regulate their emotions and help others do the same?

Psychological Theories of Leadership

Another way psychology connects to leadership is the different conceptualizations of what makes a leader.

– “Great Man” Theories suggest that people are simply born with characteristics inherent to leadership like confidence, social skills, and intelligence.

– Trait theories postulate that people inherit certain traits or qualities that suit leadership from their birth givers.

– Contingency theories state that authentic leadership does not include only personal qualities, but a delicate balance between behaviors, needs, and the context.

– Situational theories propose that effective leaders choose the best way to move forward in regard to the situation they are in.

– Behavioural theories indicate that leadership is a learned notion, and people can become leaders if they are taught to.

What is Psychological Safety in the Workplace?

In the context of the pandemic, and how it has turned workplaces upside down, it is crucial to consider and know about psychological safety in the workplace. Psychological safety is the capacity to present oneself without concern for adverse effects on one’s identity, reputation, or career. In the workplace, it is a collective idea held by the different members of the company or team that it is safe to take interpersonal risks. In other words, it is an understanding that when one speaks up, others will not embarrass, reject or punish them.

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Stages of Psychological Safety

According to Dr. Clark (2020), there are the following four stages of psychological safety:

  1. Inclusion Safety – This is the basic need to belong and connect. The employee feels safe and comfortable in who they are.
  2. Learner Safety – This is a need to grow. The employee feels safe to engage in learning, make mistakes, take feedback, and ask questions.
  3. Contributor Safety – As the name suggests, the employee feels comfortable making a difference, and making a meaningful contribution.
  4. Challenger Safety – Finally, the employee feels safe in making changes, and challenging the authority if needed.

How leaders can create more psychological safety in the workplace

Psychological safety should be a priority

Discuss the significance of fostering psychological safety at work and how it relates to a larger goal of encouraging more organizational creativity, team involvement, and a sense of acceptance. Set the tone by utilizing inclusive leadership techniques and setting an example of the behaviors you want to see.

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Show your team you are engaged

Employees will stop participating if they think you don’t listen to them when they talk or don’t appreciate what they have to say. Be present in meetings to demonstrate your engagement. This means closing your laptop and making eye contact. Facilitate everyone speaking up. Respect transparency and truth-telling and exhibit real interest and empathy. When someone has the courage to speak something that directly contradicts the status quo, listen to them with an open mind, compassion, and openness.

Encourage creativity

Don’t punish experiments or reasonable risk-taking. Encourage learning from mistakes. Creating a safe space for all types of ideas is essential in developing the innovative ability of your team. To develop trust, avoid blaming or singling out employees for challenges that crop up.

Embrace productive conflict

Encourage discussion and constructive debate, and strive for peaceful conflict resolution. Establishing team expectations for elements contributing to psychological safety will prepare the ground for gradual change.


Clark, T. R. (2020). The 4 stages of psychological safety: Defining the path to inclusion and innovation. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

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