Who helps the leaders?

by Debbie Schultz - Blue Sky Minds
Tuesday , 15 September 2020 - 5 minute read
A woman delivers a speech in a meeting room

If you’re a people leader, the chances are that current unfolding global and local events have presented unique opportunities and challenges to navigate.

It could be supporting your direct reports through the ups and downs this new landscape brings. Swiftly pivoting the business to meet new market demand, or perhaps executing budget cuts, organising restructures, or holding redundancy meetings. Not to mention working longer and more erratic hours, and doing your best to support family and friends while attempting to manage your own worries and concerns about what the future may hold.

Asking for help

If any of this sounds familiar, ask yourself this question: would you ever turn to other leaders in the business for support? Do you have peers you could confide in, share your fears, concerns and hopes? Would they do the same for you? And if you did confide in each other, would personal information be kept in confidence? Or might you be judged for showing perceived “weakness”?

With this crisis comes opportunity. Opportunity to create a more cohesive, supportive, open peer group at work. We all need this now more than ever before. Mental health statistics in New Zealand were not great reading going into this current climate and it’s likely they will only get worse before they get better.

In short, we all have a role to play here. More than ever before, people leaders need to know they can turn to each other for support through the tough days without fear of judgement or repercussion. So let’s look at the factors that create that environment.

Psychological Safety

In a now famous study, Google spent four-years trying to figure out the differentiator between great teams and not-so-great teams. The biggest differentiator—by far—was psychological safety1

Psychological safety is the shared belief that members of a group feel comfortable taking interpersonal risks. Right now, in our current environment, an interpersonal risk may mean the risk of being vulnerable in front of your peer group: saying how you really feel, what life is like in your world, the good the bad and the plain ugly.

Psychological safety relies on a strong foundation of vulnerability and openness among the group. So if the very thought of more open and honest conversations with your peer group make you a little uncomfortable, you might want to consider the benefits beyond promoting positive mental health.

It’s good to talk

According to Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, “Teams with higher psychological safety are more willing to take risks. They are more supportive of each other and they generally exhibit higher engagement, retention and wellbeing”2

Building this level of cohesion and safety takes patience and time, and can be lost in an instant. For people to feel psychologically safe they must have proof that they are. In a crisis, that means repeated experiences where people share openly with one another without risk of negative judgment, ridicule, or being seen as weak.

How much psychological safety do you have with your peer group in the office? Consider these questions:

If someone in your peer group felt overwhelmed juggling family obligations and increased work pressure, would they confide in you or others?

If someone in your peer group felt their role and responsibilities in the current crisis was unclear, and causing increased levels of anxiety, would they feel comfortable using you or others as a sounding board?

If someone in your peer group needed to take a break from work as they feel they are reaching burnout, could they talk this through confidentially with no repercussions?

If someone in your peer group was struggling with a personal illness, would they feel safe telling you or others without risk of negative perception?

How did your team do? If you have some work to do consider these steps:-

1. Check in with yourself first

How are you managing your own challenging emotions through this time? Having the unenviable job of announcing salary cuts or telling someone they may lose their job does have an emotional impact, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. Have you stopped and reflected on the past months and their impact on you? Learning how to acknowledge and work skilfully with your own emotional struggles not only allows you to regulate your emotions in a healthy way, it creates empathy and connection with others who are struggling. There is no shortcut for this; you have to do the work so that you know the terrain before you can be there for others.

2. Learn to listen non-judgementally

One of the best ways to foster openness is to work on developing the capability of present, compassionate non-judgemental listening. Not listening to coach, give advice or fix, but listening for the sake of listening with an attitude of care and curiosity. That means letting go of where you think the conversation should go and dropping into a space of ‘not knowing’ together. Mindful listening requires sustained focus in the present moment, so you are aware of facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language. Also, be aware of your own mental and emotional landscape, and have the ability to compassionately and calmly support others who may be upset or in distress.

The good news is mindful listening is a learnable skill. It is a muscle that can be strengthened over time with guidance and practice. It’s one of the core practices we teach as part of our High Performing Minds programme and it's usually the part many leaders report as being the most beneficial. One of the best ways to strengthen your attention and compassion muscle is through mindfulness-based meditation practice.

“All mindfulness practice is a tool for developing greater psychological safety. This means each person in the team is open, curious and vulnerable. They are engaged in practices of not being the expert, connecting to their own pain and connecting to the pain of others.” 3

If mindful listening is not currently one of your strong points, now is the perfect time to be brave and build capability, and as you do, be honest with people. Better to make a concerted, clunky effort and be authentic rather than inauthentic surface acting or doing nothing at all.

3. Make peer check-ins a priority

If you are a leader of leaders, how are you creating the space and environment for your immediate team to confide in you and each other? According to Mary Mesaglio, Research Analyst at Gartner, in these times the leader’s primary responsibility is to keep the team safe, cohesive and productive4.

You cannot have a safe and cohesive team if you don’t prioritise conversations where people have the space and permission to explore feelings/thoughts without judgement or being seen as weak. This does not just happen; it has to be prioritised and built into interactions, both in a group setting as a team and in individual conversations.

4. Start the conversation

Joan Mather heads up Mather Consulting and has had years of experience working with leadership teams in senior in-house roles and as an external facilitator. Her advice? Building safe, cohesive, supportive teams takes time and patience.

Start small, and over time conversations will naturally get deeper and richer as people see more evidence that they are able to be vulnerable without repercussion. Here are some starter reflection questions that can be created to fit into a regular ritual. Figure out what suits your team’s vibe and personality.

  • What’s going well, what is challenging? What are you learning about yourself from this experience?
  • How are we/others genuinely feeling about things? What emotions have we noticed in ourselves and others? How are these being expressed?
  • What are we most looking forward to about the future? What are we concerned about?
  • How do we collectively build our trust and support with each other through this time?

During our Level four lockdown, dialling into meetings from home offered a sneak peek into the private homes and lives of our peers. From spare rooms, to dining rooms, to kids, pets, spouses meandering past in the background, for better or worse here we were exposing more of who we are. There was a humanness and realness to this that we can all build on now.

If you see someone struggling, offer to grab a coffee, let them talk, really be there and listen and most importantly keep confidence.

Do this enough times and you will build trust and safety for people. And let’s be honest, if we are going to rebuild and thrive through the coming months, we will all need the space and permission to explore the range of human emotions many of us are all feeling right now.

Debbie founded BlueSkyMinds to facilitate science-based mindfulness programmes that have a sustained, measurable impact on individuals and organisations. BlueSkyMinds has a nationwide team of highly experienced facilitators that have a business background and have completed a minimum 12-month teacher training qualification. That allows them to deliver a globally recognised, evidence-based curriculum in a way that aligns to the business environment. www.blueskyminds.org


  1. Creating Psychological Safety at Work (2020) Amy Edmondson Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management, Harvard Business School https://journals.aom.org/doi/abs/10.5465/256287
  2. Four Things Leaders Can Do To Create Psychological Safety In Their Organization (2019) https://medium.com/@contact_56580/four-things-leaders-can-do-to-create-psychological-safety-in-their-organization-1050d079d2bf
  3. Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader, Marc Lesser https://www.marclesser.net/books/seven-practices/
  4. Actions to Be a Strong Leader During COVID-19 Disruption https://www.gartner.com/smarterwithgartner/4-actions-to-be-a-good-leader-during-covid-19-disruption/

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