To create psychological safety AND drive results, lead with wise compassion

To create psychological safety AND drive results, lead with wise compassion

By Eduardo Lan

Many organizations seek world-class safety performance, which is the result of robust safety systems, effective safety leadership, and a safety culture that elevates individual safety awareness, accountability, and ownership. An important part of this, particularly as it pertains to safety leadership, has to do with both psychological safety and straight talk.

Defined by Simon Sinek, “as an environment created by leaders in which people feel safe enough to speak up without any fear of humiliation or retribution (Sinek, 2021),” psychological safety is brought about through caring leadership.

Psychological Safety Unleashes Discretionary Effort

When we feel safe with others, particularly our leaders, we let our guard down. We then do our best thinking and work, bringing our full selves to the matter and showing up with all our skills and capabilities. When safety is lacking, people avoid speaking their mind, engaging their creativity, taking risks, and they hold back their discretionary effort. This is crucial because herein lies what is required to generate the high performance we desire from our people and teams in matters related to safety, quality and productivity. 

Unfortunately, the presence of psychological safety in the workplace is not common. According to a Gallup study, only 3 out of 10 US workers strongly agree that at work their opinions seem to count (Herway, 2022). Furthermore, “a mere 26% of workers feel psychologically safe” according to a new study by Workhuman. When workers feel that their opinions aren´t worth voicing or, worse, that they will be reprimanded for doing so, they will shut down. 

As human beings, we are wired for survival, which means we are continuously scanning the environment for threats. In our modern world, these threats don´t come in the form of predators—as they did for our ancestors—but rather in the form of criticism, judgment, reprimands, and punishment. 

This poses a very difficult challenge for leaders. On the one hand, they must create an environment of psychological safety if people are to speak up and bring forth their discretionary effort. On the other, leaders are accountable for results, and thus they must be willing to have tough conversations. 

This creates a sort of trap, where it seems that one must choose between kindness and honesty. But what if this is a false dichotomy? Kindness alone is insufficient, but unkind honesty is not a good approach either, as it negatively impacts the relationship as well as the behavior. 

The answer, perhaps, lies in something that Rasmus Hougaard, Jacqueline Carter, and Nick Hobson termed wise compassion (Hougaard et al., 2021). In their article, Compassionate Leadership is Necessary – but Not Sufficient, they talk about four leadership styles ranging from caring avoidance to ineffective indifference to uncaring execution to, finally, wise compassion, which is about “getting the tough things done in a human way” (Hougaard et al., 2021).

Developing Wise Compassion.

Here are 8 suggestions to develop more wise compassion and get the tough things done in a human way:

  1. Develop self-awarness.

Many leaders are blind to their leadership style and impact on others. To be an effective leader, it is essential that we develop self-awareness. You can do this by seeking honest feedback through a 360-degree survey process, getting yourself a coach, and engaging in personal reflection. 

  1. Practice self-compassion.

We can only offer others what we have. One of the reasons we are so tough with others is because we are even tougher with ourselves. To develop the compassionate part of wise compassion, begin by practicing some compassion with yourself, including the times when you were not compassionate with others. 

  1. Master self-management.

Defined as our ability to manage our behaviors, thoughts, and emotions in a conscious and productive way, self-management is all about pausing and choosing our response instead of reacting. 

  1. Check your intention.

Hougaard, Carter and Hobson advise us to “put ourselves in others’ shoes” and ask ourselves, “how can I best be of benefit to this person or these people?” 

  1. Praise people often.

To unleash the discretionary effort of people and generate an environment of psychological safety, focus on praising rather than blaming.                         

  1. Avoid reprimanding.

Consider this: There is never a need to reprimand people. This does not mean that you don’t say or do what needs to be said or done, but reprimanding just makes others feel terrible, which is not conducive to people wanting to improve. If they do improve, it will likely be out of fear, which is not a good long-term strategy. 

  1. Commit to doing the tough things.

As said above, we must not avoid saying and doing what needs to be said and done. Avoiding this is not good for us, for the other person, or the business in general. 

  1. Do the tough things with kindness.

Ultimately, we must learn to do the tough things in a human way if we are to positively impact the mindset and behavior of others. I believe we can provide the toughest of feedback or even let go of a person with absolute kindness, dignity, and respect. Doing so is not only the right thing to do; it is smart business! 

At Propulo Consulting, we help leaders show up in caring and effective ways that gain the discretionary effort of people and drive results. 


Herway, J. (2022, January 4). How to create a culture of psychological safety. Retrieved January 31, 2022, from

Hougaard, R., Hobson, N., & Carter, J. (2021, January 19). Compassionate leadership is necessary – but not sufficient. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved February 16, 2022, from

Robinson , B. (2021, June 15). 10 red flags that psychological safety is lacking in your workplace. Forbes. Retrieved February 16, 2022, from

Sinek, S. (2021, July 3). Psychological safety. Facebook Watch. Retrieved January 31, 2022, from

Tjan, A. K., Walker, C. A., & Renner, S. D. S. and D. (2017, August 24). High-performing teams need psychological safety. here’s how to create it. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved January 31, 2022, from

What is self-management, and how can you improve it? (n.d.). Retrieved February 17, 2022, from,a%20conscious%20and%20productive%20way.&text=Self%2Dmanagement%20means%20you%20understand,need%20to%20fulfill%20that%20responsibility


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