Psychological safety

December 15, 2022

Psychological safety

What can you do to build a more psychological safe work environment? How can you create a trusted environment for your employees. We read about this almost every day in the newspaper… But what if you as a manager or leader or not safe for your direct reports?

Bullying of any kind should never be acceptable in your organization. One aspect of it, upward bullying, is hardly ever paid attention to. But it does exist in many forms so you might want to learn to detect its patterns. If you’re a next-level manager, do whatever you can to support your managers who are targeted by manipulative employees. And if you’re a target of such behavior, remember that other people’s unsafe behavior and egoism are not your fault. Taking care of yourself and your work while overcoming this challenge can take your leadership and personal development to a higher level.

“Bullying of any kind should never be acceptable in your organization.”

Harvard Business Review wrote an interesting piece about this recently. Here is what we took out of it. The stereotypical workplace bully is the aggressive boss demeaning a quiet team member. But bullying is ultimately about power, and positional authority is only one power source. Bullied managers have been shown to suffer the same emotional and experiential consequences as other targets: depression, anxiety, loss of confidence, poor health, and often job loss and career derailment. And yet discussing their experiences remains taboo — shrouded in shame, feigned ignorance, and target-blaming.

Upward bullying often starts with behaviors such as withholding information and subtle gaslighting (Sarkis, 2017). After eroding some of the bullied supervisor’s legitimate authority and psychological resources, bullies escalate to spreading rumors, circumventing, and insubordination, further undermining the target’s position and well-being (Björklund et al., 2019). Typically, bullying by subordinates is enabled by support from the management one or more levels above the targeted supervisor.

Why Counter-Stereotypical Bullying Happens

High-stress workplaces coupled with societal and political polarization, the increase in feelings of entitlement and their associated interpersonal aggression, and a lack of psychological literacy create a perfect storm of conditions that increase the likelihood of bullying — including upward bullying (Twenge & Campbell, 2009).

How can an individual manager in a complex environment protect their mental health, their unit’s productivity, and their career? Here are a few suggestions.

Listen, learn and ask powerful questions

When people multiple levels below seek you out to talk about their boss, that should raise all kinds of red flags. Their complaints may or may not be legitimate. Ask questions to understand the person’s concerns, and find out how they tried to solve the problem (e.g., speaking directly with their boss, getting guidance from HR, etc). Agree to look further into the situation, but be sure never to sound like you’re agreeing with or confirming their views. You can empathize, saying things like, “I’m sorry you’re having that experience,” but never collude by saying, “How could he do this to you!” Get multiple sides of the story before drawing any conclusions.

“Build an inclusive culture that’s psychologically safe for everyone.”

Coach and support your direct report.

If your direct report acknowledges a tense relationship with someone they lead, listen with care. If they need leadership development, support them with guidance and resources. If they’re being bullied or gaslit, coach them on handling it. Avoid judging their leadership as weak or ineffective — every leader has growth needs, and nobody is equipped to manage every challenging personality. Investigate, engage HR if appropriate, or bring in an unbiased outside mediation coach. But don’t undermine your direct report’s leadership or confidence by withdrawing your support from them.

Invest proactively in a psychologically healthy culture.

When people work to undermine others in the organization, regardless of hierarchical direction, it’s a clear signal the culture is, in some way, condoning that behavior. Don’t cop out with, “Well, people are human — there’s always a bad apple in the bunch”. Eliminate organizational mechanisms that elicit self-serving behaviors, and develop systems to prevent harm. Build an inclusive culture that’s psychologically safe for everyone (Praslova, 2022).


Björklund, C., Hellman, T., Jensen, I., Åkerblom, C., & Björk Brämberg, E. (2019). Workplace bullying as experienced by managers and how they cope: A qualitative study of Swedish managers. International journal of environmental research and public health16(23), 4693.

Praslova, L. N. (2022, June 21). An intersectional approach to inclusion at work. Harvard Business Review.

Sarkis, S. A. (2017, January 22). 11 Red Flags of Gaslighting in a Relationship. Psychology Today.

Twenge, J. M., & Campbell, W. K. (2009). The narcissism epidemic: Living in the age of entitlement. Free Press.