Psychological Safety and Self-Sabotage


Read time: 10 minutes  


Psychological safety is a topic more and more frequently present in people’s attention. In the workplace, this requirement has almost become a claim of a right, sometimes synonymous with even the right to work. And more people expect psychological safety to be among the fundamental organizational values.

I am not here to contest the aspiration of people for psychological safety. I acknowledge it as an important characteristic of the most advanced labour environments and an ingredient that consistently leads to a series of positive outcomes, very beneficial for all organizational stakeholders: employees, shareholders and society at large.

However, I am here today to affirm that working places cannot offer psychological safety unless their leaders are resilient persons.


Psychological Safety

Looking for a definition of psychological safety, I found the following:

“Psychological safety is the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. At work, it’s a shared expectation held by members of a team that teammates will not embarrass, reject, or punish them for sharing ideas, taking risks, or soliciting feedback.”

It's about creating a space where people can speak their minds without fear of judgement, where half-formed ideas can be shared freely, and where dissent is not only accepted but encouraged. Leaders who prioritize honesty and transparency foster an environment where team members have each other's backs and brainstorming happens organically. 

In such an environment, people walk the talk and demonstrate it with every word they say or not, with every gesture they make or not, and with every decision they take or not. In a workplace that cultivates psychological safety, it's not about everyone being nice all the time. It is about being mindful of what one produces with their presence or absence in their work environment, and about constantly choosing to create safety through what they say, how they act or show up, and through their decisions and gestures.

However, organizations will fail to offer psychological safety, when their leaders are not enough resilient to walk the “psychological safety” talk. When I refer to organizational leaders, I speak about (1) managers, (2) subject matter experts and (3) official and unofficial leaders of opinion. Any organization has all three categories.


Managers are responsible for psychological safety.

But not only them. In organizations, psychological safety is the responsibility of everyone. In non-resilient organizations, this translates into the responsibility of no one.

But why is management more important than the other two categories? Because by definition, managers have the authority and the power to enforce the culture when people - other managers or non-managers - slip from the company values and from manifesting in the spirit of psychological safety.

Still, insufficiently resilient managers will prioritise their emotional safety over anything else in their decision-making when publicly exposed or confronted by someone with a perceived higher authority or bigger power over their professional career evolution. Most of the time, they will do this unintentionally, or without awareness of doing it and of their personal lack of resilience.

Resilience is the ability to withstand or recover quickly from difficulties. Nobody can do that unless they have a healthy dose of confidence they are safe and will be OK, now and in the future, in spite of their challenging circumstances.

It is not rare that very intelligent people undermine confidence in their personal abilities, skills and character, and are not even aware of the disservice they do to themselves. 

Thus, they are the first to self-sabotage their psychological safety. There is no need for anyone outside them to do it, they are the main source of their lack of psychological safety in their lives. Consequently, they will bring this lack in all the relationships, dynamics and systems they drive, manage, create, nurture or maintain.

Why? Because deep inside, they cannot believe they have all the abilities, skills, and resources needed for them to be safe. And, without proper awareness of their reality, they will feel at risk, exposed, insecure, or as if something is always missing for them to relax. They will equip themselves with as many masks or shields as possible, so no one will discover what they perceive to be their vulnerability.

But how do high-achieving people sabotage their psychological safety? Here there are 5 typical ways:

1. Allowing the worst self-talk over themselves

No one is psychologically safe under a ton of criticism, sarcasm, bitterness, self-deprecation, shaming, and name-calling. Especially when this is repeatedly done to them in the name of improving performance.

Yes, all managers and executives I have been coaching, tried to motivate themselves with the stick. They judged themselves, they were harsher with themselves than the worst of the worst people they had to deal with. 

They also had a logical justification for why they do it: for fear that otherwise they will become lazy, or will repeat the mistake, or they will not maintain performance, or … whatever. 

With such a mindset, there is no wonder that, if managers treat themselves like this and feel are able to withstand their self-battering convinced it helps them move forward, they will consider it normal to do the same with the others and “motivate” them by “push” or a “stick”.

Instead of feeling compelled to let your inner critic punish you, make sure you clean your self-talk, free it of any drama or unnecessary pressure, and support yourself to be prepared to take responsible action and correct the situation if the case will be.

2. Not validating their feelings

They say the absence is the strongest presence one can feel. 

Think of a small child, when the small kid is not given attention, they will raise their voice they will become agitated, and start crying or even screaming. Only to catch the attention of the adults around.

This happens also with managers. They try to contain their disappointment, frustration, shame, or even joy, just because they believe management is about keeping an emotion-free environment and emotions have no room in the working place.

What happens is that by not recognizing nor acknowledging the emotions they have or those of their colleagues, managers - for self-protection - behave like avoiding the elephant in the room: i.e. they reject or deny how they feel, or remain blind when it comes to others’ emotions, however, take decisions strongly impacted by those emotions, often with a negative impact over thor credibility.

It is only when the managers learn how to process the emotions in themselves without transforming them into negativity or additional pressure, they are able to create psychological safety for themselves first, and then for others.

3. Not respecting their growth pace

This happens a lot with new managers, but more experienced managers can also suffer from it. As a new manager, everything will be new for you. It is a foreign language you need now to learn fast. Because you feel your entire future depends on how good you will be seen in this job, you feel exposed and at risk.

You also know you have always scored high in your performance, and this is why you expect to see performance very soon also in this new field. To your disappointment and frustration, this does not happen according to your expectation. The reality is, learning something new requires time for testing, evaluation, emotional connection and integration of results, and then continuation at a more profound level of understanding and mastery. 

Irrespective of whether you know that or not, you hold for yourself the belief that you are better and can do it faster. You have just enticed yourself into a competition with no winners: on one side it is the new you - the apprentice, on the other side it is the old you - the master of the old trade who has less relevance now. This is how you start a loop of pushing, and pushing, and pushing yourself, leading to tiring you off, and, even to resending yourself in the process.

While keeping the eye on the tip of the mountain, you would be better off creating milestones of self-reflection, integration, celebration and relaxation at every 100 m climbed. What went well? What needs to be kept and enforced? What needs adjustment? Is climbing further still a good idea?

 4. Not allowing yourself the right to do mistakes

As a new manager, you know that all eyes are on you. You also know that you are technically good. It takes a while for you to realise that management is not about doing your old technical scope and just some more coordination and discussions. Your scope of work and focus shifted towards something else. Since you are a beginner, you are now learning the rules. It will take a while for you until you have learnt the rules and can concentrate only on results.

Learning the rules will require trial and error. Will require you to test new things and to know yourself in relation to those new things.

Mistakes are part of the process since are intrinsic to any process adjustment. When you reject them, you will do whatever it takes to not do them, including you will limit your testing and trying, to the point you remain stuck for not learning anything, at a time when this should be your main preoccupation at work.

The key is to focus on the process and not on the result. Once you manage the process, results will immediately show up. And mistakes are an intrinsic part of the process, at this stage.

5. Not taking responsibility for their health

Many managers mix up their drive and need for achievement with “the passion” they hold for their job. The “passion” argument is “nice” as a justification, but it does not hold water when, for the sake of being efficient, managers will start putting in overtime daily, until they have no other life than work.

The need for being seen as productive pushes managers to schedule their meetings, discussions and all kind of sessions back-to-back. They start feeling guilty for any 10-minute break they would take as if they steal those 10 minutes from somebody’s else life instead of living their lives.

Many of them are not aware that proceeding like this in long term, they will normalize a state of living under siege, where their brain is deprived of the smallest opportunity to get a bit of rest during the day. As such, their energy level drops consistently, and in time, it becomes very difficult to sustain their expectations to be everywhere, to be the first to do something, to be able to manage everything by themselves, etc.

With low vitality and energy, the body will feel tired, and unconsciously the body will maintain a high alert for any risk or danger. Hence, managers will feel overwhelmed, unable to restore calm and focus, triggered by any challenges they perceive and any personal judgement they make, and unable to think clearly of anything else, but to instinctively care for their own physical and emotional safety, which they will defend at any future cost for their credibility.

Accepting and honouring your human needs first will transform you into a compassionate person, one able to accept, support, nurture and understand the journey of any of your colleagues. Only when you put the oxygen mask first on your face, you are able to take care of the safety of the ones around you.

A final word

SAFETY is both an element of nature and nurture. 

As nature, our brain will try as much as possible to keep ourselves alert towards our own physical and emotional safety. While physical safety is easy for one to get and understand, emotional safety is a tricky part. For enjoying emotional safety, people will be prone to make decisions that would alleviate their emotional pain in short term, at the expense of their long-term calm, success, well-being or even health.

All managers need to know this aspect of the human brain functioning, because knowing it will let them a different awareness about the possibility of taking a step back, reassessing every difficult situation from various angles, integrating differently the negative energy of the emotions they feel at that point, and choosing with intention a more appropriate line of action than their initial automatic response.

As a nurtured element, SAFETY is a taught feeling. It is about what you already know about being safe and what means for you to obtain safety, or to be or provide it. 

As a manager, you will always be better off understanding what safety means to you. Because the way you see risk and danger is the way you will project or foresee the existence of the problems in your activity, in your team dynamics, and in the dynamics holding a stake for your evolution and well-being. Executive managers do not appreciate hyper-vigilant managers, predicting the doom day coming in one hour. Or those managers who feel under attack and, as potential victims, build up shields and barricades to not be reached in any way.

As a manager, you need to know what triggers or challenges your safety. You need to know your existing “operating script” for whatever you perceive to be a problem, a risk, or a danger for you and your team. And you need to know how to discern between perception and reality. Living according to perceptions is living in a parallel story that has little to do with reality. 

To create psychological safety, you - the manager - need to know what this safety is for you, what this safety means for others, what is the commitment of your company through its values, how you gain it, how you lose it for yourself, how you offer it, how you create it, how you enforce it. This means knowing yourself and your range of emotions, thoughts, behaviours, and reactions connected to risk, danger and safety. Such awareness sets you in the right spot to work on your resilience further.

One can ensure safety in spite of circumstances, only when one knows they are perfectly equipped to pass the difficult circumstance in a safe manner and to land safely beyond that obstacle. No one can be the source of any kind of safety unless they are sufficiently resilient. 

Resilient people will not pretend safety from anyone outside themselves, because safety is in them. They know they can. They know they have resources. They know they are enough. They know they will prevail irrespective of the circumstance and of how they feel at the moment, in that circumstance. Resilient people always build resilient environments. It is in their nature to do it, because they know their future is not at risk and that they will be safe anyhow. 

People who are not resilient will always demand to be protected. However, doing so will just reinforce a loop of victimhood in them. This loop cannot end in spite of any claim for more psychological safety and of any provisions from the environment to satisfy this request. Because this request comes from the disempowering self-inflicted attack of “I am not enough” that is incompatible with their inner safety. Therefore, this cycle will not end unless they decide to stop it, and work at their inner resilience.

While psychological safety is worthwhile to be pursued in organizations, it will remain just a listed value on a wall unless organisational leaders are resilient people reinforcing it through their daily decisions and behaviours.

As a manager, the work you do on yourself becomes the gift you give others! In offering it, you just increase even more your own confidence and your psychological safety.



Alina Florea

Your High-Performance Coach



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 “Psychological safety is the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. At work, it’s a shared expectation held by members of a team that teammates will not embarrass, reject, or punish them for sharing ideas, taking risks, or soliciting feedback.”

Managers are responsibile for psychological safety.

There are 5 typical ways in wich people sabotage their psycological safety:

  1. allowing the worst self- talk over themselves
  2. not validating their feelings
  3. not respecting their growth pace
  4. not allowing yourself the right to do mistakes
  5. not taking responsibility for their health 

As a manager, the work you do on yourself becomes the gift you give others! In offering it, you just increase even more your own confidence and your psychological safety.

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