The Psychologically Savvy Leader: Excelling by Meeting the Needs of Those You Lead

You know that usual list of leadership competencies? Communicate your vision, think strategically, build high-functioning teams, manage change, etc.? Well, you won’t find that list here.

Leadership is more than the sum of those deconstructed behaviors. Leadership is a deeply human and meaningful endeavor. One in which a person has the simultaneously grand and humbling opportunity to bring people together and help them shine.

From my experience working with hundreds of leaders, I know they share a deep reverence for their role. And they want to live up to it.

Leadership is an honorable expression of dedication. Stepping into leadership is equivalent to saying to those you care about in your life, “I am here for you.” In part, being “here” means meeting people’s psychological needs within the work context.

People at work have the same underlying psychological needs of humans in any situation. We need to know we are safe. We need to know we matter. We need to know we are not alone.

By “know” I mean experience these feelings in our bones. For example, people don’t feel safe because they are told they are safe. We feel safe because we experience consistent freedom from harm.

The psychologically savvy leader is aware of these needs and understands that addressing them serves a vital business need.  They know that successful leadership is not so much about making something happen as it is about creating an environment in which creativity, collaboration, and hard work flourish. That is what brings business results.

How does a leader create this kind of environment? Like the development of anything meaningful, thoughtful attention and action over time are necessary. The list below is a guide to a few of the critical conditions successful leaders establish for their team or organization.

Each condition includes a question that you can ask yourself on a daily basis to reflect on your attention to that area. Only by observing yourself regularly and clearly (and without self-judgment) can you see what you actually do and the impact you have on others.

1.     Create a sense of psychological safety for your people.

People need to feel safe in order to participate at their fullest capacity. If we think we will be harmed in anyway (whether practically or psychologically), even without consciously intending to, we will generally shrink back. Businesses cannot afford to lose the vitality of their people. Without it, productivity and innovation decline precipitously.

What does safety look like? A place that is free from any sense of harm. Harm comes in many forms including emotional reactivity, defensiveness, sarcasm, favoritism, gossip, blaming, and avoidance. Harm can also often be quite subtle. Savvy leaders realize that a person may feel unsafe even if that was not the leader’s intention. Sensitivity is required of leaders to stay alert to the impact of their behavior.

Question: Did I do anything today that might have made any of my people feel scared, worried, or hurt?

2.     Value your people.

Some might say they work for practical reasons, and it is true we all need money to survive in the modern world. But humans have a deeper psychological need for work. We need to feel that we are contributing, that our work matters, that we matter.

In the leadership literature, the concept of valuing people is sometimes reduced to “provide positive feedback” or “give recognition.” But valuing people is richer than both of those behaviors and, thus, more powerful. Valuing your people means valuing their efforts, their ideas, their energy, their good intentions, and, perhaps most of all, their essential humanness. We can all feel the difference between someone giving us a single compliment on a job well done and a consistent valuing of who we are and what we bring to work each day. The latter fuels us, energizing us to contribute more.

What does consistent valuing look like? Savvy leaders pay attention to what their people are doing and consciously look for opportunities to acknowledge their contributions. They look for contributions beyond tasks to qualities a person brings to work that help build successful environments. These include qualities such as clarity, strength, compassion, and generosity as well as abilities such as relationship building, mentoring, collaborating, and helping others.  Savvy leaders also regularly acknowledge specific individual and collective actions that advance the organization’s vision and goals.

Question: In which ways did I let people know today that I value what they bring to work everyday?

3.     Support your people.

Humans are social animals. We need to know we are not alone, that we are part of a pack that “has our back.” Support does not mean that leaders agree with everything their people do or that they can do whatever they want. Support means that people have the latitude to think and be creative, while knowing that they will be upheld even if they make a mistake or misstep.

When people are not upheld and feel dropped, people usually, without consciously planning to, begin to be very cautious. While thoughtfulness is a beneficial trait in an employee, caution is not. As good leaders know, a balanced dose of risk-taking is key to business success.

How do psychologically savvy leaders support their people? They encourage the process of exploration. They actively foster their people’s development by talking to them regularly about their talents and interests and by providing them with opportunities. They pay close attention to their people to see hidden aptitudes and match those with business needs. They understand that mistakes happen and problems occur, and that both can be addressed more effectively in a culture of support.

Question: How specifically did I express my support today?

None of these is simple, quick, or particularly easy. But all are possible with consistent practice. Perhaps now is the right time for you to establish, repair, or grow your team, department, or organization.  Choosing to create these conditions a will not only improve satisfaction and engagement among those you lead, but also will accelerate business results.