How can organisations improve employees' psychological safety?

Employees' psychological safety is under threat in times of crisis such as COVID-19, but there are steps leaders can take to help their employees feel safe again, according to UNSW Business School's Professor Frederik Anseel

Psychological safety is so important for performance because you need to feel safe that you can come up with new ideas and try new things. And that's how you get your energy and your motivation.

Now, what is happening in this crisis is that psychological safety is under threat, because people don't know what the future will bring. They hear a lot about job cuts, salary cuts and being uncertain about the future of their company, the future of their own careers. So suddenly, people become very cautious in what they do and what they say at work.

Also, most people now are working at home or working in very exceptional circumstances. And that doesn’t make it easy to check informally with people if everything is okay, if what they're doing is okay. So they don't have a lot of information about how they're currently seen in the work environment because they're a bit isolated. And they're uncertain about the future. So they don't feel psychologically safe anymore. And that creates a lot of stress actually for people.

A lot of organisations mean well, so they will communicate about the turbulent environment, they will communicate about a difficult financial situation, but in doing so, they actually are undermining people's psychological safety. I see managers and leaders saying, ‘we're listening to you and we're listening very carefully.’ But people don't want to hear that you're listening. They want to see that you're listening. They want to see in your behavior and your decisions and your actions, that you're actually listening.

Everything that was more based on an informal understanding and goodwill risks being undermined now, and actually, in a crisis, a lot of companies are counting on the goodwill of their employees.

So what you want to do as a leader is you need to open up communication channels, explaining ‘Look, we'll do everything we can to make sure that your job is still here, we can't predict that. But for the moment, we will give you all information that we have ourselves. And feel free to reach out to us as to how you're doing, what you're experiencing, and how we can support you in currently doing your job as well as possible.’

And then you need to capture what you've heard, bring that back to people and say, ‘Look, this is what you're telling me. I've listened to this, I've reflected on it. And this is what I'm going to do.’ And that will instil a sense of trust, when they see that you're actually changing your decisions on the basis of what you've heard from them.

Listening is an important one, but also be very open and honest about this being an exceptional situation. So let's say that for instance, you had some sort of an informal agreement with an employee about working hours or maybe training or a program that person would follow. And that is no longer possible.

You need to acknowledge the previous sort of promises that were made, and you also need to make it very clear that a new negotiation will happen in the future where everything that has happened will be taken into account.

A lot of people are a bit distrustful about a lot of things are happening: ‘will you remember in six months or in a year, how much effort I put in here, how risky everything that we did here was, will you remember this?’

And so as leadership, you need to acknowledge that ‘We know that is exceptional, but we won't forget this’ and that will instil a new sense of trust. People will be accepting that some of the agreements will have to stop here and will need to be renegotiated at a later point of time.

But you need to be honest and open about this.

For more information please read the article or listen to the full podcast on How to rebuild psychological safety in the workplace post-coronavirus.


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