By Graham Williams & Justin Kennedy

Some workplaces are caring, fair and reliable. Employees know that they are appreciated, belong and are free to express themselves. They can safely engage and contribute their views and concerns without any fear of adverse consequences or of being ignored. They find satisfaction and meaning in what they do.

Psychological Safety

When employees feel this way, organizations benefit significantly from the sharing of diverse viewpoints, misgivings, questioning and ideas. They achieve greater agility and resilience, and better and more sustainable results. Such workplaces may be termed ‘psychologically safe’ and have happier and more motivated workforces.
Safety is carefully crafted and cultivated in winning organizations.

Conversely, in psychologically unsafe workplaces, there are obstacles to expression and the contribution of knowledge and feelings. The ‘employee voice’ is curtailed due to obstacles. Obstacles could be perceived inauthentic or unavailable leadership, fear of reprisal, being penalized, ostracized or negatively assessed for the sharing of uncomfortable information (the threat of personal risk and uncertainty), or not ‘toeing the line’.
Whenever that’s the case, the organization will tend to perform below par. We have detected a widening of the gap between psychologically safe and unsafe workplaces.

In our divisive and polarized age, psychologically safe workplaces deserve loud and prolonged applause for bringing about cohesiveness and sustained high levels of performance. This is captured by the acronym CLAP which explains the key characteristics of psychological safety.

This article is informed by extensive research (in the areas of neuroscience, psychology, behavioral economics and business science) and practical experience in consulting to workplaces around the world. We hope to present to you a coverage of a complex and important topic in a way that is devoid of flowery, ‘impressive’ language. Here goes!

Culture (CLAP)

Less stifling control of employees is found in cultures where principles and psychological maturity are seen to promote freedom, satisfaction and engagement in a way that assumes far greater importance than rule-based drivers. This applies to purpose, values, sustainability, care for the environment and society, ethics and behavioral norms.

Regenerate and See each other through

Dean Carter, the Chief Human Resources Officer at Patagonia uses agriculture as a metaphor for cultivating a happy, productive workforce. The idea is not for the organization to extract all they can from employees. Rather, Patagonia look to regenerate the employee. The accent is on nurturing and developing, an escape from controlling, dehumanizing environments that become psychic prisons.

As an example, they’ve done away with notoriously scary performance conversations. Employees become co-leaders and are not viewed as a factor of production to be maximized. In turn they engage intellectually, emotionally and socially. (Weller, C. 2019).

The prevailing atmosphere is one of unconditional, positive regard where the members learn to show compassion to themselves and others, and serve to ‘see each other through’ rather than to ‘see through each other’. (Williams, G. et al 2015)

This is the essence of a psychologically safe workspace. In such an open culture employees are confident, curious and energized, and good things happen. They are free to move out of possible panic and drone zones and into the flow zone. (Czikzentmiháli, M. Ph.D. 1975)

CEO of Quantum Workplace, Greg Harris has stated in a significant research report that “The two most important organizational aptitudes today are innovation and resilience, and culture is the single biggest driver of both. Therefore, the link to wealth creation should not be a surprise”. (Wright, H. 2013)

Leaders (CLAP)

Leaders (individual and collective) carry the primary responsibility for creating psychologically safe workplaces.
Sustaining our individual wholeness and allowing ourselves to flourish, whatever the circumstances, is essential to living a good life. Only if we are integrated (whole) and not fragmented will we find purpose and meaning. This requires that we feed (maintain and nourish) our inner and outer lives – through reflection and relationships. And through a resilience-capacity that keeps things together and healthy.

It’s clear from studies of our different brain states that we cannot continually drive in first gear without burning out the engine. We can’t stay in Beta mode. We have to gear down and ‘sharpen the axe’ for consistent high performance. Being ‘idle’ without feeling guilty helps towards our well-being, and introduces a needed balance to our all-too-often hectic and frenetic lives. But why sharpen the axe merely to repeat a vicious cycle of working frenetically until a rest is imperative, then resting only to repeat the process? Why repeat this same cycle of work, break, work, break – if you’re not achieving harmony, balance, seamlessness between different compartments of your life? And continue living an out-of-balance life.

Whole and Authentic People

David Whyte points out in his book on the subject that we have ‘marriage’ commitments to another, to work and also to self and that “in these pages I am looking for a marriage of marriages”. He says that our “current understanding of work-life balance is too simplistic. People find it hard to balance work with family, family with self, because it might not be a question of balance. Some other dynamic is in play, something to do with a very human attempt at happiness that does not quantify different parts of life and then set them against one another. We are collectively exhausted because of our inability to hold competing parts of ourselves together in a more integrated way”. (Whyte, D. 2010).

The secret for leaders (and their followers) is to achieve integration rather than compartmentalization. To carry the same principles, values, relating habits, ethics and behaviors across work, social life and family life ‘boundaries’. At the same time as contributing towards building resilience, this also fosters authenticity.

Moods, emotions and states are contagious. People frequently catch one another’s emotions. Negative emotions tend to be expressed more emphatically and negative emotional contagion spreads wide and deep – whether adopted, suppressed or ‘avoided’. Clearly organizations are hurt. Aware Leaders who discover what is required to regulate their emotions effectively, and even more importantly can habitually express positive emotions such as enthusiasm, openness, and joy will reduce negative emotional contagion. (Reitz, M & Higgins, J. 2019).

Inner Growth

In order to achieve this effect, savvy leaders undertake inner work to address their shadow side, reduce unconscious biases, and raise their consciousness, identify personal triggers of negative emotions and deal with them maturely when they arise.
Much has been written about the dark side of leadership. Refreshingly, the British recently published a report, pretty much summed up in the following diagram (Jarrett, c. 2019):

According to this early research, the dark side triad is more populated by men, mainly younger, extrinsically-driven participants. The light side is more populated by women, older participants, those with a stable upbringing and having a spiritual bent (intrinsically-motivated). Inherent in the light triad are outward, growth mind-sets.

Mindful, aware, sensitive, calm, steady, and focused leaders help others to experience similar psychologically safe states. This empowers people to think clearly, innovate, and perform at peak. Non-reflective mindfulness together with reflection practices is the fundamental operating system that drives all that they do.

In our coaching work with leaders we put some emphasis on two character-elements borrowed from theology: metanoia (higher level, non-dualistic thinking) and kenosis (a prosocial, other-orientation fed by self-emptying). Compassion both soothes and bonds, reinforcing psychological safety. (Williams, G & Cooper, E. 2018).

“Effective leaders put words to the formless longings and deeply felt needs of others. They create communities out of words. They tell stories that capture minds and win hearts”. (Bennis, W. 1996)

They are not afraid to speak out clearly on wider environmental, societal and economic issues and allow healthy discussion of any topic in their organizations.

Marcella Bremer: In the next blog post, Williams & Kennedy reveal what the AP stand for (in CLAP). You might have noticed the similarities between positive leadership and a positive organizational culture with these psychologically safe cultures and leaders that Williams & Kennedy describe.

What stood out for you in this post? What will you focus on next week?

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