The role of psychological safety in managing change 

Let’s imagine a scenario where a medium-sized organisation is going through a change. The company has been acquired by a larger organisation and is currently undergoing the process of integration. 

What can a leader of the company being acquired do to help support the transition and ensure that people’s voices are being heard along the way? What role does psychological safety play in this scenario?

Psychological safety refers to a shared belief that a workplace is safe for “interpersonal risk-taking”. In practical terms, this means that workers feel able to speak up with suggestions, discuss concerns and errors, and identify problems—and that, in doing so, they will be treated fairly and compassionately without facing negative social or professional consequences.

Psychological safety (or lack thereof) is often at its most noticeable during times of change – probably because any change, especially when managed poorly, has potential to activate a stress response in people where fear, anxiety and uncertainty rule. Over time, when not managed well, this can lead to negative outcomes, such as widespread resignation, burnout, disengagement and increased health risks.

How can leaders ensure psychological safety is at the heart of their change process?

The truth is that workplace culture is hard and gruelling to change. The best predictor of success is to already have a psychologically safe environment in place before the change process begins, but there are also some steps you can take to ease the change process as it unfolds.

Communicate with the goal of generating feedback

When managing change as a leader, transparent, timely and regular communication is crucial. But more than just communicating with the goal of being heard, a psychologically safe approach would ensure that generating feedback is at the forefront. This means enabling two-way communication channels where workers at every level can safely share their concerns, ask questions, get support and clarify information. Most importantly, it also means that there is a plan in place for how this feedback will be reviewed, responded to and actioned quickly.

Professor Amy Edmondson, psychological safety researcher at Harvard University, recommends that leaders should:

  • Acknowledge they don’t have all the answers and need others’ input and ideas. Asking for help when leading others through change may look like a compromising move; however, researchers agree that this feeds into building trust and respect. Exchanging ideas and opinions helps to develop more effective ways of resolving issues and to take shared ownership of the changes happening.
  • Develop appreciative listening skills and demonstrate empathetic leadership when responding to feedback – both good and bad.
  • Actively listen and ask questions to engage people and encourage them to speak up (at every level of the organisation!).
  • Be transparent with motives and reasoning behind key decisions, including communicating why certain feedback cannot be actioned, if applicable.

Psychological safety when leading through change

Knowing that everyone’s voice is welcomed in the organisation, especially in times of change, is important for both successful change implementation at the organisational level and people’s sense of belonging to their newly restructured organisation.

Moreover, seeing employees as partners in the process of change can help leaders to reduce their own level of stress. Framing the period of change as a shared opportunity for growth may support people in developing their own attitude to change, helping them to become more agile (and hopeful!). 

Lead values-first

When a merger or acquisition takes place, one of the key threats that workers face is a culture clash around ways of working and interacting. To alleviate this, leaders should have their people’s back and support them through the transition by committing to what’s important to their people in terms of values and ways of working.

A psychologically safe feedback process (outlined above) is likely to reveal which values are perceived by employees as being under threat. This should indicate where to start when addressing fears and concerns, knowing that values are important to get right first before addressing logistics (like what kind of parking is available at the new office). For example, if the feedback process highlights a real fear that Company A’s drive for innovation is going to be compromised during the restructure, a senior leader might take time to share the new vision statement and business plan, and how Company B has jointly committed to executing on this under the new acquisition.

There are many benefits of organisational growth through acquisition and yet it may be difficult for employees to see those benefits at the early stages. That’s where an authentic narrative built by leaders is particularly important. Providing reassurance of what isn’t going to change, insights into what’s coming up next, being honest about current challenges and highlighting the benefits of the change can help people to form a bigger picture and look for opportunities (not just threats).

Work from the team level if organisational culture is hard to budge

We know from research conducted using our Umbrella Wellbeing Assessment that levels of psychological safety can vary widely across teams. What this tells us is that every individual and team leader plays a role in building psychological safety through being respectful, curious and caring when interacting with their team. 

Asking genuine questions, being understanding of mistakes, and offering help are small steps that are available to everyone and can make the difference in slowly creating a safe environment at the “local” level. This means that even if senior leaders, executive teams or the board are not necessarily leading with psychological safety (or there is a leadership mismatch between the two companies being integrated), it’s still possible to build and maintain psychological safety for the team that you’re in. 

Work from the team level if organisational culture is hard to budge

As a team leader, know that any restructure or change is likely to spark multiple challenging conversations, making it essential to have tools and strategies in place to handle those conversations with confidence and humility. Some people may decide to leave the organisation, others may start behaving differently from what’s usual, with levels of wellbeing and productivity fluctuating constantly. Leaders should be able to identify these dynamics in their team, acknowledge them and create a safe space to discuss them constructively. 

Know where to go for help

It’s no surprise if you find yourself getting stuck when building psychological safety, holding challenging conversations, or supporting and validating people’s responses during a major change process. These are all tricky, complex situations that need time, space and energy to lead well.

Sometimes it can be useful to receive psychological insight or advice from an independent expert. If that’s the case for you, our team members at Umbrella are skilled at facilitating a range of leadership training sessions that centre around psychological safety, change management and holding difficult conversations. We also offer leadership coaching and strategic consulting, allowing you to tap into our experienced network of registered clinical and organisational psychologists and researchers. Get in touch if you’d like to find out more.