How to Lead When You're Not the Boss

Be the change you want to see at work.

Posted May 09, 2019

I am often asked: How do you cultivate psychological safety on your team when you’re not the boss?

If you’ve read the latest thinking on management practices, you have encountered the term "psychological safety." In a nutshell, it means that employees feel able, and even obliged, to speak up without fear of reprisal. It’s been identified in research (by me, others, and a high-profile study at Google) as the vital characteristic underpinning the highest-functioning teams.

 @byRawPixel via Pexels
Make it your own party, and be a good host.
Source: @byRawPixel via Pexels

I sometimes picture a psychologically safe environment as dinner at the house of my friend Paulo. The table is set with what my colleague Ed Schein has called “situational humility"; this is partly Paulo’s nature, and partly that years of hosting have taught him that this makes for a better party. Everyone’s views are explicitly and implicitly invited, from the well-known filmmaker to the high school senior to the octogenarian.

The atmosphere is contagious and even the cantankerous are swept in. We listen intently and respond appropriately. We ask curiosity questions. We don’t shut another person down or act like we have all the answers. If someone hasn’t been heard from in a while, they will be drawn in and their views drawn out. The table buzzes with ideas and a sense of well-being.

Make no mistake, people are honest: Many responses begin with this group's trademark phrase, Si! pero… (Yes! but…). Psychological safety is not about being “nice.” It’s about bringing your whole self to the table, without fear that you will be humiliated, disrespected, or shouted down. Because you care—about the topic, about others, about being a part of the conversation.  

What we wouldn't do for a workplace like this! But what if at work you are not the host of the party, so to speak? And worse, what if you work for a boss who can’t or won’t change?

While it’s true that bosses play an outsized role in shaping behaviors in the workplace, anyone can help create psychological safety. Some easy starting points:

  • Ask genuine questions of your colleagues: What can I do to help? What are you up against? What are your concerns?

This tool is deceptively simple, and deceptively powerful. A question plainly conveys, “I am interested in what you have to say.” In asking it, you have created a moment of psychological safety that helps others offer their own thinking. When we ask genuine questions, and listen and respond thoughtfully, people feel they matter, whether they are a boss, peer, or subordinate. (Meanwhile, we all might just learn something, which is always good!)

  • Say things that frame the challenge ahead.

Reminding people of what the team is up against—for example, by talking about how the work is uncertain, challenging, or interdependent—helps paint reality in ways emphasizing that no one is supposed to have all the answers. This lowers the hurdle for speaking up. It reminds people that their input is welcome, and in fact truly needed. The more you understand what others are up against, the more you spontaneously do things to build resilient and strong work relationships. 

By framing the challenge, you demonstrate your dedication to your organization’s goals. When people, especially managers, believe you really care about the work, they’re likely to cut you some slack. And that is always handy. 

  • Act as if your environment is already psychologically safe. 

Dress your work persona for the culture you want, not the culture you have. Be the change you want to see at work. This is my favorite tip of all, but it takes some guts. We all have a natural tendency to look up, to look in the direction of the managers above us. We have to train ourselves to look down and across instead. Removing your mask helps others remove theirs.

The personal challenge lies in remembering, in the moment, to be vulnerable, as well as interested and available. To do this you will have to take on the small interpersonal risk that your attempts may be ignored, or worse, rebuffed. Sometimes you have to accept an interpersonal risk to lower interpersonal risk.

But in my experience, the odds of failure are low. Assuming a modest level of goodwill in your organization, most of the time your colleagues will respond well to general expressions of vulnerability and interest.

Creating a pocket of excellence, candor, and learning in your group is worthwhile, no matter what those above you are doing. Like the atmosphere at Paulo’s table, it’s contagious.

You don’t have to be the boss to be a leader; each of us can shape our work climate in small ways. A leader’s job is to create and nurture the culture we all need to do our best work. And so anytime you play a role in doing that, you are exercising leadership. You are the host of whatever you choose to define as your dinner party.

So give it a try. Pause. Look around.

Is there someone you can invite to your table?