Consider this: A recent Gallup poll reports only three in 10 employees feel their opinions count at work.
The two obvious questions following such a harrowing statistic are why is this the case and how can we fix it. Researcher Jake Herway provides a compelling case for the why portion. As for the how, well, it’s complicated.
First, why do 70% of workers feel their input is undervalued? Herway answers, “Because it's not safe to engage…. Employees fear their ideas will be rejected to their detriment, or that managers will go so far as to penalize them. So, they keep their heads down and their mouths shut.” This coincides with research from Harvard Business School professor Dr. Amy Edmondson who uses the term “psychological safety” to describe the degree to which employees feel comfortable being and expressing themselves. The more employees feel like they have the opportunity and safety to provide input, the higher their engagement and retention. Makes sense.
The next step is where things gets tricky.
To answer the how question, Google’s Head of Industry Paul Santaga outlines six steps for leaders to establish psychological safety within a team. But what these steps omit is perhaps more telling than what they include, and this omission has important implications not just for psychological safety, but for any leadership/management advice.
Have you ever been to a conference or read an inspiring leadership book and felt like you couldn’t wait to implement all these great ideas with your team, only to be stymied by indifference and disinterest when you returned to work?
The problem is not that the information at the conference, in the book, or in Santaga’s six steps is wrong, it’s that they have no idea how your organization actually operates.
Leadership does not take place in a vacuum.
Often times we make the mistake of assuming anyone in a leadership position has complete reign over their subordinates, like a lord and his fiefdom. On the contrary, for most organizations, every leader is a “middle manager” to one degree or another (managers report to directors who report to VPs who report to executives who report to the CEO who reports to the Board who report to stakeholders). Each leader has a boss of their own, and that boss influences deliverables, leadership style, communication, expectations, etc. Leaders also have peers within the organization and the industry at large who impact each of these areas as well.
What this means is leaders do not operate independent from outside forces. Rather, they are part of a system. And as members of that system, they contribute to and are affected by other members’ values, norms, and beliefs. Even in smaller, flatter environments, employees have to wade through informal and formal roles to discern the correct gatekeepers. As a result, it is unrealistic to expect that successful leadership practices in one organization are immediately transferrable to another, or that any management advice can add meaningful value without careful consideration of the specific work environment.
How then should leaders be equipped if every situation is different?
I use the example of psychological safety because, ironically, it is the answer to its own problem.
Those with the highest level of power (typically the C-suite) must commit to intentionally promoting psychological safety as a focal point of the organization’s culture. As Herway writes, “...for real culture change to transpire, [psychological safety] has to include – and start with – the executive team. It is when leaders then share their organizational answers with the rest of the company that the expected behavior is encouraged and alignment occurs.”
By encouraging others to verbalize dissent, create alternative solutions, and lead organically, executives send a clear message that other leaders are not expected to just copy and paste a standard management style. Instead, leaders have the autonomy to use the organization’s mission and values guiding principles for maximizing their team’s effectiveness, knowing their boss has their back. This is leadership at its best.
It can be tempting to think that in order to create a cohesive, unified culture of excellence, leaders must exercise as much control as possible, tightening the hatches to achieve a militaristic chain of command with absolute compliance and no questions asked. The doctrine of psychological safety preaches a different message. By opening the system to a safe competition of ideas, leaders and their teams will feel more engaged and take more ownership of processes and outcomes.
Think of it this way, the other seven people in Gallup’s poll who don’t feel their opinions count at work aren't just administrative assistants and interns. They represent organizational members up, down, and across the hierarchy. In order for leaders and members to truly grow in any corporate environment, they cannot continue to be spoon fed generic prescriptions for complex symptoms. They must feel safe to challenge the system, apply new skills, and ideate new information.
If you truly want to establish an engaged and positive culture, it has to start at the top and it has to start with safety. Leaders do not operate separate from the organization. Don’t settle for ubiquitous solutions to context-specific problems. Encourage openness, speak of it often, and bolster words with action.