Over the last two weeks the world has spoken, emphatically protesting the lack of safety that black people experience with police. While the events that prompted world-wide protests have taken place in the public sphere of life and not within organizations (other than police departments), feeling safe is critical in all of life.
Safety and trust are the foundation upon which people make social choices. They form the context that allows for risk-taking. And risk-taking is what we do when we voice our disagreement, argue with our teammates, dissent from group think, or suggest new ways of doing things. Trust and safety are what makes it possible for a team to work together and emerge as something greater than the sum of its parts – and it is also what makes it possible for highly diverse teams to be extraordinarily productive. Teamwork, freedom to dissent, willingness to argue out a point or push back against the manager’s idea — they are all critical for progress. But they are all stifled when trust and safety are lacking.
In the streets, we look for trust and safety to preserve our own willingness to play by the rules. In other words, we play by the rules specifically because we understand that we all play by the rules –both citizens and government. When that social contract is intact – as it is for most white people – we feel safe. We can trust that unless we violate the law, we will likely never have a run-in with police. Take away that trust and suddenly there is enormous uncertainty and suspicion. If the actions of government seem capricious, arbitrary, or discriminatory – we feel unsafe and no longer trust.
At work, safety and trust are equally as important. Research by Google Re-Work project has found that the single most important component of high-performing teams is psychological safety.
Psychological safety is a kind of catchall term that describes something most of us recognize but can’t quite articulate. We know we are psychologically safe because we feel like we are free to be ourselves without worrying about blow-back, retaliation, or shame. In organizations that have psychologically safe cultures, employees feel free to express their opinions –even to heartily disagree. In fact, healthy disagreement is a major result of that safety. But, how do you create psychological safety? It may be easier to start with our experience of unsafe environments.
Each one of us has worked or lived in a psychologically unsafe environment. Sometimes, opposing the boss means being shamed. Or “trouble-makers” get labeled and demoted or sidelined from important projects. Outliers of the wrong sex, race or social group get overlooked for raises or promotions –or are moved to undesirable functions or transferred out. The evidence can also be even more subtle. Silent teams are never just “quiet people”. They are unsafe. People shut down when they sense it’s unsafe. They are hiding in plain sight.
In those same organizations, there is likely to be a lively gossip mill. People turn against each other, or gossip about each other or the boss. But what they can’t do is change the culture. Toxic cultures kill the hope that would allow for change.
Historically, when organizations depended on workers solely for their physical toil alone –as they did in the early days of capitalism – psychological safety may not have been as critical. Plus, there was less opportunity for non-transactional interactions between employees. If the widgets got onto the assembly belt fast enough and competently assembled –that was enough.
In today’s workplace we are largely employed for our thinking, imagining, innovating –or our teamwork or customer service. Even the least well-paid among us must be more than a human manufacturing machine. The barista at Starbucks performs an automate-able function in her cappuccino assemblage –but it is her sunny disposition, customer-centric attitude and attention to detail that makes her more valuable than the espresso machine. Customers don’t go to cafes solely for the coffee –they go for the atmosphere and the experience of being “known” by the other regulars and the staff.
Employees are only as engaged in their work as the safety of the culture permits. If we feel unsafe, we become human automata – going through the motions but keeping our souls locked away. The research has shown that employee engagement is one of the greatest characteristics an organization can harness. Why? Because the most engaged employees do the best work, generate the most innovation, are the most loyal and tend to multiply team cohesion rather than undermining it.
But employee engagement does not spring from the self-motivation of individual employees. It grows in a culture –much like the culture that supports life in a petri dish. That culture must include psychological safety.
We feel psychologically safe when our workplaces are imbued with trust. Trust in every direction. That means employees trust leadership, and leadership trusts employees –and perhaps most urgently –employees trust each other. The tiniest aspects of modern work life can either express trust or distrust. For example, transparency — a bit of a current fad — can both indicate trust or distrust. If employees are given full visibility into everyone’s calendar does it indicate they are trusted or not? I suggest they are not trusted. Worse yet when employers use software to track the activity of virtual employees!
What about salary transparency? Ask yourself why you might want to know what your peers earn. If it were me, I would be checking I’m being discriminated against. Do I trust my employer? Apparently not.
As leaders, we all need to investigate the ways that we signal trust and the ways that we demonstrate trustworthiness. For most organizations, even those that have high employee engagement –there are still corners where distrust governs behavior. By exploring your metrics, policies, and everyone’s everyday behavior, you may find those underground areas where you have sent a message of distrust. Those cost you in employee engagement. And that costs you on the bottom line.