Creating a Psychological Safety Net

Leaders are spinning in many directions as the world of work appears to have lifted off its axis and everyone is trying to find handles to hang onto.

Teams of people are having to work from home and are needing leaders who can support them in different ways.

The leaders of today realise they’re struggling to figure out how to look after themselves and need to also deal with their own issues. Our neurobiology has gone into overdrive and our basic instincts are stepping up as we feel our lifestyles are threatened.

At the same time our intellectual capacity to think and plan is being compromised resulting in difficulties in deciding on how to communicate and work with virtual teams.

This neurobiology is about our elemental emotional drivers that delves into our overarching organising brain principle of minimising threat and maximising reward (Gordon, 2000). And, we currently see ourselves under threat and are trying to deal with that at an instinctual survival level.

Trying to come up for air and start enabling our executive centres for thinking, problem-solving and decision-making, means it’s appropriate to look at our elemental emotional drivers.

These elemental emotional drivers are directly linked to our brain’s social domains – PARSE (meaning of PARSE – break into separate components and analyse each element carefully). We need to first be aware of how this impacts ourselves before we are able to help others. If we ignore these issues, we continue to be in a state of emotional ‘upset’.

These social domains are:

  • Predictability
  • Autonomy
  • Relatedness
  • Status
  • Equity

Each person’s need in any one of these domains is different. Some are more critical in certain areas of our lives.


Our brains automatically look for patterns and based on these, try to predict the near future. Your brain craves certainty, to know the patterns occurring moment by moment. If the brain is unable to do this, and requires your conscious thinking, it will be more energy-intensive.

When your brain is unable to predict, your brain will detect an error message and it becomes difficult to focus on other things.

The reward circuitry in your brain generates a feel-good experience based on meeting expectations or going back to a place in which you are comfortable.

As you can imagine, any type of change will generate a lack of predictability. And, this is definitely change!

How are you managing to deal with this yourself? What about your team? Are they looking to you to give them a degree of certainty in their new work lives? How can you do this?


This domain relates to your ability to exert control over your environment – a perception of having choices. If you believe you are in control, you have choice, you will feel rewarded. The reverse is true – if you feel your autonomy to make decisions is being undermined, such as when you are being micro-managed, you will produce a threat response.

In our current situation, you’re being forced to manage yourself and your team in different ways. How has that affected you? How has it affected your team?


Relatedness is about being ‘in’ or ‘out’ of a social group – where you belong. Our natural inclination is to form a ‘tribe’, such as sporting teams or even teams/departments at work. We categorise people according to a ‘friend’ or ‘foe’ stamp.

Shaking someone’s hand or discussing something in common can increase the feeling of friend. You build trust with those around you, and the more you trust them, the more likely you will collaborate with them.

How do you manage this with a virtual team? What can you do to keep you and your team connecting with each other?


This domain is about the relative importance; the order of seniority. It is based on your perceptions of status in relation to others and impacts on the way our brain processes information. Your feeling of having increased status is directly related to how you feel about the other person – if you feel you are ‘better than’ him/her, you will feel good as your reward circuitry in your brain has been activated.

If you feel that your status will be reduced or has been, it will generate a real threat response.

How have the current changes affected your idea of your status? What about your team – do they feel their status had been reduced by having to work from home?


This is about perceived fairness, and it is about perception. You may think that the current situation is unfair to how you have been managed, given expectations or anything else. It is likely your team will think the same way.

What can you do to ensure your team feels as if you’re being fair to each and every one of them?

Solution Possibilities

Predictability – try setting up a routine for yourself and your team. Make sure each person knows what is expected of them and when. You and are your team will start seeing the patterns of their new daily lives. The error message will be diminished.

Autonomy – by setting expectations and boundaries, give your team members the ability to choose the way they manage themselves within these. Do not keep checking up on them. Believe in them. Trust them. They will deliver.

Relatedness – have a morning ritual of connecting virtually. Spend five minutes or so with some banter before getting into the workload requirements. Make sure you feel as if you’ve connected with each person individually before moving on to the next person.

Status – this can link to the way you manage your team. If you radically change the way you monitor and connect with them, this may also have an impact on autonomy and equity. Be aware. Value each person’s contribution.

Equity – As this is directly linked to how they perceive the situation – how you’ve connected with them, shared the workload or given them more or less autonomy, you need to check if they are happy with how everything is being managed. It’s their view on their world, not yours!

For you and your team to work together and discuss any issues, there needs to be a level of psychological safety. Without this net, you, as a leader, will not progress. Your team will remain in a state of emotional flux unable to manage themselves and their workload.

Enabling Myself and Others

It is worthwhile finding out how you feel about each of these social domains and how they have impacted your thinking and behaviour. I have a self-assessment tool I happy to share if you want to analyse your levels of need.

You are welcome to also use it for your team.

Understanding and knowing begins with you. Please reach out if you want a chat or would like to use the self-assessment tool to uncover your own or your team’s levels of need.

Karen Livey
Neuroscience Leadership Specialist

If you are interested in any of Karen’s workshops in Perth or reading about her background, please visit this link.