Psychological Safety & CEOs: Are You Fueling the Sparks or Stoking a Slow Burn(out)?

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Psychological Safety & CEOs: Are You Fueling the Sparks or Stoking a Slow Burn(out)?

According to the International Labor Organization, Americans work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers. To put that in perspective, 85.8 percent of males and 66.5 percent of females work more than 40 hours per week., which means many of us spend long days at the office or often bring our work home. With that being said, this past year required nearly everyone to carve out long-term space within their homes and inevitably blurring the line between our professional and personal lives. 


When leaving work is only walking across the room, how do employees retain a healthy boundary? Conversely, those who aren’t used to working from home may find they’re easily distracted and struggle to focus, which leads to anxiety induced inefficiency. 

Meanwhile, for CEOs and leaders, their company’s culture and the strategic alignment of their employees has been put to the test like never before. As many organizations struggle to regain their footing following a tumultuous year, they depend heavily on the resilience of their managers, their ability to re-enforce the mission, and lead their teams. It’s a relatively new dynamic for many companies and top-level executives are taking a closer, much needed, look into their organizations. Sorting out future work arrangements, and attending to employees’ inevitable anxieties about those arrangements, will require leaders to rethink and expand one of the most important factors of team effectiveness: psychological safety.


A premise first pioneered in the 1960’s, and then somewhat abandoned for several decades, psychological safety is the belief that an environment in which its members are not afraid to speak up with new ideas, admit to mistakes and voice concerns without fear of punishment or humiliation. When an employee has a key role within a high-performing team there’s inherently a sizable amount of stress, but if the individual doesn’t feel capable of being themselves or adapts a persona that they believe allows them to fit in better, it’s very wearing mentally. While the exhaustion may be subtle at first, it compounds over time and may eventually cause burnout. 

There’s a rather large misconception that this is an individual problem and should be identified, addressed and resolved by the employee, but in reality, it’s part of a more complex workplace-leader-team culture issue. Many organizations believe they mitigate these problems by offering healthy benefits like gym memberships and team outings, but though well-intentioned, it’s merely a band-aid. Given the recent social and economic pressures like diversity, inclusion, hybrid work environments and long-distance leadership, how employees work is a primary focus for CEOs looking to retain their teams. While this all sounds a bit foreboding, there is good news. Once an understanding of psychological safety is established, it will be easier to develop, cultivate, and scale it within your organization.

Like many countermeasures, it begins at the top, with leaders taking the first step in creating psychological safety by asking questions themselves, listening to answers, identifying and admitting their own shortcomings. This fosters transparency, solidarity, and most of all, trust. 

Key attributes of emotional intelligence—including courage, curiosity, and self-awareness—are all important prerequisites when developing psychological safety

Laura Delizonna, Stanford University

Delizonna also identifies communication as the foundation for growth, and recommends setting ambitious, but attainable goals, and instituting regular, one-on-one time with senior leadership. In a busy, fast-paced organization that may be easier said than done, but a long-established and successful tool for instituting this people-first focus is the OKR framework.


Creating OKRs requires a team to come together and brain-storm ideas, giving a voice to employees and encouraging them to engage in the strategic growth of the company. The ability to exchange thoughts and ideas in a comfortable, positive setting is what creates high performing teams. Employees discuss goals and present how to best achieve them according to each of their unique abilities. This also provides an opportunity for individuals to discuss any concerns or misgivings they have about successfully executing their OKRs, which helps alleviate frustration and eventual burn-out.


Implementing OKRs is more than incorporating a goal structure, it’s about adopting a way of working that aligns mission-focused organizations with a safe company culture. Although OKRs are based on creating goals that are quite ambitious and if well-crafted, often difficult to achieve. While that may seem counterproductive in an organization struggling with psychological safety, the Execution and Retrospective phases of the OKR cycle are quite beneficial. 

OKRs encourage communication and the Execution timeline, which takes place over 13 weeks, recommends that leaders hold weekly team meetings and one-on-ones throughout the quarter, in order to provide continuous conversation, ample feedback and necessary recognition to team members. This also allows for the opportunity to identify and acknowledge issues, or roadblocks, that can be addressed and remedied early on, so that positive progress can continue through the remainder of the quarter. Meaningful reviews and meetings offer valuable insight for the team share, or Retrospective.

A Retrospective is a team meeting held at the end of each quarter, in which you and your team to take ample time to reflect on the previous 13 weeks. A successful retrospective includes celebrations, great or small, allows for observations and input from everyone on the team, and identifies improvements that can be made in the next quarter. While achieving goals is wonderful, don’t lose sight of the fact that these elements are also essential in creating a psychologically safe environment.


Like anything transformative, adopting OKRs requires patience and diligence. The most important thing you can do while executing OKRs in the first, and even second quarter, is to be realistic. In the beginning, your team may attain 80-100% of their goals, but as the environment becomes more “safe”, your teams can become more ambitious. However, this will result in a lower rate of success, perhaps reaching only 60-70% of their goals. While this may seem counterproductive, because it looks like teams are actually delivering less, they’re probably delivering much more. Perspective is key.

When utilized well, OKRs are a powerful tool for leader to better understand how their organization works, how the environment around your organization affects employees, and where you have the greatest leverage for fostering positive change.

Join us for an upcoming webinar: Conversation, Feedback, Recognition: Create a Psychologically Safe Environment for Your Employees to Prosper with People Stretch CEO, Alex Bartholomaus.  Register below:

Thursday, July 15, 2021

1:00pm PT/4:00pm ET

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