Prioritising workplace psychological safety for performance sustainability

Many leaders and managers still seem to assume a kind of universal employee experience. However, every employee’s lived experience of work is as unique to them as the ways in which their brains ‘filter’ and interpret what is going on in the world outside their heads.

That ‘good work is good for you’ is well understood, but with the pace of work and life now so fast, and with so many competing claims on employees’ time and attention, it’s no longer enough to simply guess how ‘good’ the work is.

 For work to feel good, for embedded pressures to catalyse growth rather than stress, leadership must be prepared to create a workplace culture that is safe enough for people to speak up, share unique insights and to offer feedback - even when the feedback isn’t what they want to hear. All parties need to feel able to initiate potentially uncomfortable conversations and to receive the resulting information without judgement and as a learning opportunity. Employee feedback about ‘what it feels like to work here’ and the strategies they deploy to respond to work demands, is as intensely valuable as it is easy to do.

The hardest step is the first one - deciding to include employee feedback in the wellbeing strategy. Engaging staff directly and harvesting insight is relatively easy once you’ve decided to be bold and ‘risk’ it. There are plenty of assessment tools available to help leaders gather what their staff are often desperate to tell them - we provide many of our own - but in truth not having access to one is not a showstopper - you don’t need an assessment report to start asking the right questions.

To moderate or remove the risk of people experiencing pressure as stress it is essential to have open conversations about:

  • How people feel about their workload
  • How they feel change is managed
  • How much control and influence they feel they have
  • How clear they are about their role
  • The quality of their working relationships
  • How supported they feel and how to access support if they feel they need it
  • How psychologically safe they feel being themselves and sharing their experience

Leaders don’t have to agree with what is shared - it is not possible to universalise the employee experience any more than a leader should their own - but that doesn’t matter. This type of feedback is a window onto how the work landscape looks now and critically, with the right questions, what better would look like to them. In wellbeing and performance terms, particularly with highly engaged teams, better for them leads to better for leadership too.

Towards more open workplace cultures

There’s no easy way to measure organisational culture because there are so many factors that combine to create it. It’s interesting to note that not long after the Health and Safety Executive published its stress risk management standards the requirement to measure organisational culture was quickly dropped on the grounds that it wasn’t possible to achieve a reliable measure for it in the assessment tool. That it was initially included demonstrates the central government's recognition of the role that organisational culture plays in dialling workplace pressure either up or down. These are all big factors in wellbeing outcomes:

  • Understanding how people experience their workday, with specific reference to how safe people feel to speak up if they’re struggling
  • Whether they feel it’s safe to be themselves (or whether they have to wear a kind of work mask) and how freely they can share their ideas, insights and missteps
  • How much trust they feel towards leadership and colleagues

Psychological safety works in two directions at once. Unless employees feel that the culture of the company they work for openly celebrates honesty - that is to say the people who work there are 100 percent confident that honesty is really what’s wanted, and that there won’t be any negative consequences from being honest - then few will be prepared to take the interpersonal risk required to say what they really feel or share what they know. They save that for friends, partners and therapists.

The fact that so many employees don’t feel it’s safe to be honest about the difficulties they may be having in meeting deadlines or squaring conflict between their personal purpose and company demands, or any other negative impact that work might be having on them, is a major threat to the wellbeing and performance sustainability. When people tell you nothing or only what they think you want to hear, you’re in trouble. If you aren’t asking the questions or you are but compliance is all you’re getting from people, then the only wellbeing strategy open to you is stockpiling wellbeing remediation and hoping for the best. Fear of what might emerge if employees are invited to discuss sources of pressure means open conversations like this feel like a risk. This goes some way to explaining the proliferation of wellbeing services - tertiary interventions – in preference to exploring and addressing the issue at source.

Starting primary prevention through identifying and moderating root causes means you also need to nurture a culture, or at least to start with a safe space, where people feel psychologically safe enough to be honest. When people are not afraid of negative outcomes through sharing what they feel or know, then a barrier is raised, exposing new perspectives, valuable experiences, novel insights and fresh ideas. People’s attitude to experimentation changes when people feel confident that failure is viewed as a personal or team ‘little learn’ that fast-tracks organisational development.

Making it possible for people to download and share the ‘data’ of their lived experience gives leadership limitless, real time information to use to make the company boat move faster, in the right direction. At the same time, it offers a significant, zero-cost opportunity to dramatically increase employee satisfaction, engagement and productivity while also enhancing wellbeing and performance sustainability.

What’s not to like?