Boosting the psychological safety of staff in the new normal

Employees can struggle with productivity if they feel anxious and uncertain about the future. So, ensuring that leaders are creating psychological safety will be crucial as companies navigate towards new ways of working in an uncertain context, says Karen Armstrong

Having more than passed the 100-day marker in lockdown, we were increasingly hearing from clients of the emotional toll on their leaders and managers. The crisis management phase saw businesses at lightning speed, creating remote working processes, furloughing staff, navigating cash flow challenges, managing customer expectations and now the predicted waves of redundancy. All this and much more, have increased stress levels and impacted emotional wellbeing for many staff.

As lockdown continues to ease, there has been much talk about the imperative of ensuring the physical safety of staff and customers, as we learn to create Covid secure environments and attention has swiftly moved to the other imperative of psychological safety.

Psychological safety has been described as the absence of interpersonal fear (Edmondson, 2018) for example, the courage someone must have to speak up about how things really are, without fear of repercussions. It is also about the basic human needs of fulfilment, belonging and feeling mentally and emotionally secure. Employees can struggle with productivity if they feel anxious and uncertain about the future. So, ensuring your leaders are creating that psychological safety and that they have it themselves, has never been as important as we navigate towards new ways of working in an uncertain context.

Clients are telling us they are reconfiguring their workforce, to optimise a blend of on-site/in person and virtual/remote workers. They recognise the challenges for managers and leaders to be visible, have presence and consistently communicate the organisational purpose, which inspires, binds and bonds teams and the wider workforce together.

Our coaching clients admit that they are finding virtual working through Zoom and the like stressful, not being confident to tune into individual and team emotions and that it’s all so very different to what they’re used to, in a face to face context. The novelty and benefits of home working are being eroded by time and an undercurrent of emotional disturbance could be rising to the surface.

Many commentators are pointing to the evidence around increasing levels of anxiety, fear, depression and stress. This may only be exacerbated as the redundancy rounds roll out and a re-emergence of ‘survivor syndrome’ comes into play.

Some clients have expressed noticing an apparent dysfunction in leader’s ability to demonstrate emotional awareness, social attachment and interpersonal relating, which is impacting performance and productivity. If your leaders are feeling stressed and struggling emotionally, this will be picked up by their people, even over Zoom and bring a contagion all of its own.

The degree to which your leaders can manage their own stress levels and feelings, work on their emotional self-awareness and be mindful and present, is key to overall improving employee wellbeing, inclusion and engagement. This we know from the evidence base, drives productivity and high-performance outcomes. All of this is critical to how we build our way out of the pandemic and return our businesses to meaningful, sustainable and profitable growth.

Karen Armstrong is the director of KA Executive Search Ltd.

A check list for boosting psychological safety

  1. Reflect on your own sense of wellbeing, be honest, how are you really doing? Do you know what is going well, what is not working and what support would make the difference for you in how you are leading your team?
  2. Set the stage and clarify the context you and your team are working in, especially because the ground has shifted since the pandemic. Make sure there is role clarity as well as discuss and set expectations about risks, mistakes, uncertainty and the importance of speaking up.
  3. Refresh your sense of purpose as a team, why you exist and why what you do matters and the values and behaviours that shape how you all work together. Achieve a shared understanding of interdependence and the balance between autonomy and collaboration.
  4. Build a sense of belonging and make sure each team member feels a strong personal connection with you and that they feel you know them and that you care about them as a person.
  5. Promote mental and emotional security by replacing blame when things go wrong with curiosity; engage in explorations of the problem and ask people for ideas on solutions and positively invite participation.
  6. Create connecting rituals, virtual coffee rooms/lunches, texting, personal touches and informal check-ins; especially if some of your team are working remotely and some are back in the office, explore together how you will create an inclusive climate.
  7. Don’t forget to respond productively by expressing appreciation, acknowledgements and saying thank you for individual and collective team contributions, efforts and achievements, to build team spirit.

Click here to access the KA Executive Search simple rating scale to evaluate how you think you personally are, or your organisation is doing on psychological safety.