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ATD Blog

Why Leaders Need to Choose Connection Through Crisis

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

“I’m overwhelmed.” “Things just feel so heavy.” “I don’t know where to start.”

Raise your hand if you’ve heard or made similar comments. Between 2020’s global health pandemic and racial justice reckoning, it was a year unlike any other. But, so far, 2021 hasn’t looked or felt much different. Every day, as individuals and leaders, we’re experiencing and enduring the impact of multiple crises that will have lasting mental health effects. You’re tired. Your team is tired. The overwhelm is tangible. And there’s no defined end in sight. Instead, you’re being challenged to provide new levels of support to navigate and lead through it.
But what if there was an easier way?

For too long, we have treated difficult conversations—conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion or mental health—as separate from the “real work” we are doing. Psychological safety, a term coined by Harvard professor Amy Edmondson, is the belief that a person will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. By building a psychologically safe culture, your team will be comfortable coming to work without their armor, expressing their ideas, voicing their concerns, and contributing to the success of the team. It’s the feeling that “what I say matters, the perspective that I bring matters, my lived experience matters.”

If we’ve learned anything from Edmondson’s ideas, creating a safe space where team members can bring their whole selves to work is not a nice to have—it is essential. We need to shift our mindsets to see that this is the work of leadership.

Bestselling author Austin Channing Brown says, “The work of antiracism is being a better human to other humans,” which is true for all leadership development. We need to ask ourselves how we can enable our teams to fully show up at work without fear of being judged or misunderstood. How can leaders truly hear them and empower them when they are struggling? In this complex environment we’re living and working in, it has never been more important to cultivate psychological safety.


As leaders, how can you show up differently right now?

  • Lean in to difficult conversations. You may not have all the answers nor do you need to. But you need to show up. Often when leaders see a problem (especially if it makes them uncomfortable or feel vulnerable), they fall prey to the action bias and rush to solve it, even before the problem is defined. Instead, lean in to the discomfort, listen deeply, and work together on the solution.
  • Use what coaching expert and author Michael Bungay Stanier calls “a more coach-like approach.” This means showing curiosity and empowering your team and their voices—“ask more, tell less.”
  • When speaking with your colleagues and clients, be authentic. This can help create connection even in the heaviest of conversations. Authenticity makes us more relatable and more human. And remember, building psychological safety is not about being nice. It still creates accountability. Authenticity allows you to challenge yourself and your team to have real conversations.

I should be clear here. This isn’t the panacea that will solve all your problems. There are other leadership skills that will improve our abilities in addressing racial injustice or supporting mental health in the workplace. However, psychological safety will make it easier for your team members to understand that their voices matter and lead to productive conversations rather than avoiding the tough stuff.


As we start to think through what the next normal and future of work will demand from leaders, the focus will be around the most “human skills.” Post-pandemic, inclusive leadership will be an expectation, with greater self-awareness and a focus on building genuine connection with others. Consider a workplace where a team member’s job is connection; where we excel in humanity, creativity, storytelling, empathy; and where everyone is united behind a bold purpose.

What if, as leaders, we can meet this moment and create a future where comments like, “I’m overwhelmed,” “Things just feel so heavy,” and “I don’t know where to start” are not only heard and accepted but supported with “Tell me more” and “We’ll get through this together.”

About the Author

Allyson McElwain is an established learning professional dedicated to driving progressive cultures to meet company, customer, and employee goals for strategic growth. She is a dynamic and authentic leader with expertise in human capital development and diversity and inclusion, and a trusted adviser to the executive team on today’s leadership and culture challenges. She holds a PhD in industrial and organizational psychology from the University of Guelph.

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Great article!
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Indeed authenticity and connection is now, as always important.
Thanks, Shauna-Gaye! The future is all about being "radically human" as Korn Ferry would say :)
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