People Don't Quit Their Jobs, They Quit Their Bosses

What is this Utopia of Psychological Safety?

You can call it utopia, but I’ve been pretty lucky when it comes to teams I’ve been a part of and even led. Lucky, because the leaders I worked for had disarmed themselves and found some flow.  Flow? I can picture the confusion on your face. But flow is this experiential freedom of autonomy, candor, and creativity in your work area. Yes, all the components that can drive a worker to be intrinsically motivated and committed to the team. It’s a rare find, and for some, you may even be skeptical that it’s actually a thing. When my boss told me I had such freedoms, I was in disbelief. I was like, “What is this Utopia you speak of? Am I being pranked?” Nope, I wasn’t. I discovered these kinds of leaders are pretty confident in their approach and promote a healthy culture where remedial action occurs at the worker level. Looking back, it told me that I too could also be disarmed. And it told me that when it was my time to lead, I could communicate our share goals, create a safe space to operate, and the team will commit to exceeding them.

Safe space is not just physical—it’s safety in communication, critique, and creativity

For you to know what it means to be disarmed, you have to know what it means to be armed. Being armed means you come equipped to manage with more of a traditional, autocratic, or hierarchical style. Pragmatically, all activities are determined by you and approved by you—the boss. Not only would you expect this, but you would also demand it. Here’s an important understanding of being armed—you are protecting your position—your title, your authority, and your decisions. When those come into question, that’s when you would be the most armed. Let me say this: armed leaders aren’t always overtly negative and overly tyrannical. They often lack self-awareness, carry self-doubt, or have poor social skills. They can be exceptionally nice people. So sometimes armed leaders are hard to spot until they reveal themselves.

Conversely, to be disarmed would be a break from these hierarchical leadership and management approaches. Quite honestly, we’ve been led under these traditional practices for so long, we almost expect the organization to be managed in that manner. But this is a break from centuries-old managerial paradigms that hold organizations back. It creates a flow that is palpable. It can be seen and felt in the energy of the team, the relationships, the assistance to one another, and especially in problem-solving. But if you are like me, you just expected the leader to dictate how things will work, what decisions will be made, what changes will be allowed, and what risks will be accepted. Whenever you’d reach an impasse, you would put the operation on pause and wait for the boss even if a critical milestone is at risk. In fact, there is this underlying fear of taking action without their approval. And even worse, some are hesitant to offer suggestions or elevate problems. If you are honest, most of us are currently being ruled by this kind of management style. Let’s be clear—this is not leadership. And there is certainly an absence of flow. Furthermore, this style is so rampant that when it doesn’t exist, you find yourself in this awkward utopian displacement.

Psychological safety can be defined as a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. In this environment, team members feel accepted and respected.

To create this safe space, you have to choose to be disarmed. You have to be able to think, act, and illustrate leadership that doesn’t create real or perceived negative consequences to their own image, status, or career for speaking up. Disarmed leaders promote a positive environment where the team thrives and are active participants in the achievement of goals. They are committed to the road ahead and can identify its curves, potholes, and challenges. It’s a state where each member is motivated and up-channels issues and recommendations. They even give the boss critical feedback without fear of reprisal. It’s an amazing experience and flow because the organization has the freedom to progress without looking over their shoulder or being bullied by a meddling peer. On an individual level, each member is more self-aware and has the courage to open up about their weaknesses. They accept help from their peers and solve problems at their level. It’s a flow that comes with risk but is manageable by the skill of a disarmed mentality.

Gallup: Psychological safe leaders create a 12% increase in productivity

Either way, armed or disarmed, it’s a personal choice. You can protect your authority by autocracy where you are personally safe and your team lacks trust, are minimally committed, and struggle to achieve goals. Or you can choose to normalize this apparent utopia by building from your core strengths, empowering your team, inviting open communication, and creating a sense of safety that drives discretionary effort. You know…flow. I will leave you with this—it takes no courage to be armed. You will avoid risk, you will maintain the status quo while probably minimally meeting performance metrics, and especially, there will be no threat of critique; not to you or anyone else in the organization. But here’s the reciprocal challenge—you’ll likely see retention rates drop, morale decrease, and productivity deteriorate. Even worse, you’ll create an environment where people are afraid to take risks, thereby stifling innovation and demotivating your more talented people.

Is that a risk you are willing to take?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.