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CREATING PSYCHOLOGICALLY SAFE WORKPLACES – It Will Depend on All of Us

There are people in our world who do not feel safe because of the color of their skin. There are people who don’t feel safe because of their gender. There are people who don’t feel safe because of their religious beliefs or sexual orientation. This has to stop. It’s time to decide, once and for all, that inequality and this kind of fear are unacceptable.
Living without fear begins with the way we raise and educate our children, relate to each other in our communities, and approach each other in our workplaces. Why not start with the realization that there are people in our society who do not even feel safe coming to work. They don’t feel safe to speak honestly, to offer ideas, or to be themselves. They fear that sharing concerns and mistakes will mean embarrassment or retribution; that if they are honest, they will be humiliated, ignored, or blamed. They fear asking questions when they are unsure of something. They sit on their hands, stay within the lines, underperform and become dissatisfied. When people are afraid, they stay dangerously silent, they disengage, they lie, and they leave if they can. Or worst of all, they quit and stay.
Far too many managers – both knowingly and unknowingly – still believe that fear is what motivates. Too many managers are unaware of how unacknowledged stress and anxiety breeds fear around them. Brain science has amply demonstrated that fear inhibits learning, productivity, engagement, innovation, and fulfillment.
As we emerge and re-engage from this pandemic, the need for people to feel safe as they face uncertainty and anxiety is more important than ever. And a great opportunity lies in front us to reset the compass and create fearless organizations and lives. Let’s decide to change the world by creating safe, authentic places for people to live and work. Here are seven strategies:
1. Take 100% accountability. The issue of fear will never recede in our world until it recedes within ourselves. Taking accountability means committing to examine the level of fear that we knowingly, or unknowingly, create around us. Changing the world starts with looking in the mirror. Taking accountability also means being willing to understand how our past impacts our perception of our current reality. Due to our reaction to past trauma, abuse, and shame, many people do not feel safe living in their own body, tainting every relationship in their life, particularly those in authority. Before blaming your boss for disrespecting you and not creating a safe workplace, understand how your past impacts the lens with which you view the world. Changing the world means taking accountability for facing, healing, and coming to peace with our past. While organizations are accountable for co-creating a safe environment with their employees, security must come from within each one of us individually.
2. Take care of yourself. Given the enormous level uncertainty in the world right now, resist the natural human tendency to “push through,” and instead, slow down and define what truly matters to you. Use this time to create a safe place within. Creating a safe space around you starts with feeling safe with who you are. Self-care isn’t always comfortable or easy. Self-care means respecting yourself enough to know what you need and creating disciplined routines that ensure those needs get met. Make sure you get support for yourself so you can create safety and support those around you. We ultimately treat others the way we treat ourselves.
3. Bring a servant mindset and a generous spirit to your work. According to Lance Secretan, “leadership is a serving relationship that helps people grow and makes the world a better place.” It starts with being a “we” person rather than a “me” person. It’s about supporting people to get the work done rather than controlling and manipulating; and helping them be the best they can be in the process. Leadership is ultimately about caring, because leadership involves caring for people, not manipulating them. If you don’t genuinely value everyone’s unique contribution, creating a psychologically safe organization will remain elusive and superficial.
4. Be human. At this stage of the pandemic, people are experiencing a variety of emotions. They are nervous and anxious, fatigued from fear and uncertain about the future. There’s grieving, ambiguous loss, resentment, and a mixture of caution and optimism as we emerge into a new reality. There can be awkwardness with people you haven’t seen face-to-face for several months and uncertainty about new expectations and norms. Take time to listen, to be there for those you serve, and to look for opportunities to connect and have the conversations. Most of what you’ll hear you likely can’t fix. What people need to know is that you care enough to take the time. It’s a time to grant grace and exercise patience. It’s a time to practice being human.
5. Get rid of performance appraisals. Stop evaluating, grading, supervising, and treating people like children. Replace parental, disrespectful reviews with ongoing feedback, honest respectful conversations, shared ownership, two-way accountability, and mutual agreements that support both personal as well as organizational success. Be a partner with your staff, not a parent.
6. Be curious, humble, and vulnerable. Great leaders know they aren’t the smartest person in the room. They surround themselves with capable people and then take time to learn from them. They know that no one is better than anyone else. We all merely bring unique gifts to our lives and our work. Making it safe means being vulnerable and open to learn from everyone and asking for help when you need it. Being vulnerable means sharing what matters to you and listening to what matters to those around you.
7. Invite the bad news and say thank you. If you’re going to live or work together in the spirit of humanness, you are going to have to accept that there will be bad news. Great leaders don’t pretend that it isn’t there and cover up the facts. They embrace the negative and see it as a growth opportunity. Making it safe to bring the bad news isn’t about blame. It’s about ownership, personal responsibility, courage, and honesty. It takes a secure leader to be grateful that people trust you enough to bring you the hard stuff, and open enough to learn together how you’re going to work collaboratively to fix it.
In summary, creating a fearless, psychologically safe workplace does not happen by accident. Just because you see yourself as a good leader, doesn’t mean that people around you necessarily feel safe. You have to be intentional. A safe environment doesn’t mean that everyone always agrees and are polite to each other all the time. It’s about a genuine commitment to honesty and respect. It means having clearly defined expectations of each other, along with high standards and working in partnership to achieve those standards. It also means we accept that we are all human and that we are going to fall short at times and it’s okay to talk about it, learn from it, and recommit to a new course of action.
To create psychological safety, positional leaders need to make an explicit – formal and informal – space and time for open, ongoing, acceptable discussion of error, failure, and shortcomings. Conflict will inevitably arise, and we need a safe place to speak candidly about what’s bothering us, with each person taking responsibility to look at their contribution to the conflict. We need to be intentional about inviting participation and sincerely valuing every person’s input. We also need to be intentional about recognizing and expressing sincere appreciation. What we appreciate appreciates. And, perhaps above all, we need to grant grace that it takes time, patience, and persistence – let’s give the human spirit a chance.
For a more in-depth study of psychological safety in the workplace, I recommend Amy Edmondson’s book: The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety In The Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.

DON’T WASTE THIS CRISIS Let’s Not Get Back to Normal

A crisis is really a terrible thing to waste.  – Paul Romer, Stanford economist

In college, while on the track team, I was inspired by the university’s volleyball coach. He had a mantra that guided all his practices. Every time the ball came on your side of the net he would say, “use it.”
“The ball is not your enemy,” he would continually remind his team. “Don’t be in a hurry to get rid of it. Use it as a way of developing your capacity.”
The ball of COVID-19 has been served to our side of the net and just as in volleyball where you have three touches before you return it, three leadership opportunities arise today. Our response to these opportunities enables us to develop new capacity so we won’t waste this time afforded to us.
1.    Community. Being thrown into chaos has elicited a response of community. We see this all over the planet as people open their hearts to each other in the midst of separateness. This is a time for leaders to build community by reaching out and connecting (even if it is virtual and imperfect). It is a tremendously important time to stay together while being apart. Forgiveness and patience are called for as we stumble forward through this uncertain and unfamiliar terrain. Many employees are juggling trying to homeschool their children while managing the demands of their work. We are dealing with economic uncertainty and layoffs. If there was ever a time for compassion and grace, it is now.
Don’t compromise accountability, but don’t push for productivity; it will emerge naturally from your best people. Extend trust. Most importantly, find any way you can to express appreciation. Of course, our health care professionals and grocery store clerks need our gratitude. But all those who are working tirelessly to provide essential services in the background – electricity, gas, water, and internet, waste removal, to name a few – also need our appreciation right now. Let’s be a little more kind to ourselves and everyone around us. Remember that just because we are expected to have social distance, doesn’t mean we have to be socially disconnected. It’s a time to deepen our community.
2.    Creativity. The second authentic response to crisis and accompanying chaos is creativity. While productivity will surely wain at this time, what is spreading as fast as the fear and the virus is human creativity. From John Krasinski’s Good News Stories to the myriad creative responses to isolation, to the writing of poetry and performance of music, celebrating and expressing the human experience helps keep us entertained and enlightened, and brings light into such potentially dark times.
In a recent coaching call, I was speaking with an owner of a feedlot who is in the middle of reforming her business model. Ordinarily she would be sitting with her team to get their input. And she can’t do it virtually. Only two of her entire team even have computers. So she gave each of them a piece of paper with an initial vision sketched out, along with a request to provide input. What she is getting back is remarkable creativity and innovation. Most importantly, the introverts on the team who ordinarily would be quiet in a group setting have risen to the occasion and are shining brightly for the first time.
In times of crisis, authentic leadership opportunities emerge. How can we help our teams and our families access their creative side amidst the challenge of uncertainty? It’s all there if we simply step aside and allow it to come forth.
3.    Contemplation. There is a third equally important response required in this time of chaos and uncertainty: contemplation. There is a huge difference between surviving this crisis and actually allowing it to change us. To change we must allow ourselves to really s-l-o-w d-o-w-n, get our bearings and allow ourselves to be fully impacted by what is happening.
We live in a time of profound disruption – when something is ending and dying and something else is wanting to be born. How we have been living and working has not been working. It is becoming evident that it is not sustainable. What is dying is a civilization built on a mind-set of excess, of bigger is better, of confusing standard of living with quality of life, and of organized irresponsibility.
What is being born is less clear. It is a future that requires us to connect with a deeper level of our humanity and discover who we really are and how we want to be as a society. We are already seeing changes emerge – both within ourselves and in the environment.
People in the northern Indian state of Punjab are reacting with awe at the sight of the Himalayan mountain range, which is now visible from more than 100 miles away due to the reduction in air pollution as a result of the Coronavirus lockdown. Indians in the city of Jalandhar haven’t seen the peaks of the Himalayas for decades.
There might be a few extra endangered sea turtles in the ocean thanks to the Coronavirus after lockdowns in Brazil left nearly 100 new hatchlings with a clear path across the beach and into the waves. Wildlife officials were the only humans on the beach in the town of Paulista last week when 97 endangered hawksbill sea turtles hatched in front of their eyes.
In Italy, the lockdown is giving the outdoors — which is typically flooded with tourists — a chance to recharge. In Venice, the city’s canals are clearer because there is less boat traffic, allowing the sediment to stay at the bottom. And, with fewer water taxis and boats ferrying tourists and residents along the canals, the air has also become cleaner.
What are we allowing to see more clearly and cleanly in our own lives? All social change – from Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr. – began with a connection to a deeper essence of what our life and our work is about. Nelson Mandela’s capacity to influence came, in large part, from the contemplation amid years of being unjustly imprisoned and emerging with the power of forgiveness. Such movements share an understanding that creating sustained change in the world requires us to connect with an inner authentic self.
If we stop, reflect, and make room for contemplation in order to connect with a deeper side of our nature, the world will change. While it is important to connect with each other and connect with our creative side, it is also vitally important to connect with our inner, most authentic self, to reset the inner compass, and be guided by a life that may well have been buried in the busyness and tyranny of the urgent.
Like the ball that has come to our side of the net, this COVID crisis is not our enemy. Let’s use it. While distraction is, at times, part of the journey, let’s be careful not to distract ourselves to the point that we waste this huge opportunity before us. Authenticity asks us to embrace what is in front of us so it will change what lies ahead of us. This crisis truly is a terrible thing to waste.

Accountability, Ownership, and COVID-19

The focus of my life’s work and passion is authentic leadership. At the foundation of authenticity lies ownership and personal accountability. In part, this means the ability to distinguish between what you can control and what you can’t and putting energy into that which you can influence. I am aware that COVID-19 is causing concern and fear. I recently read that, despite all that is being done, 50,000 people still die on this continent every year from the flu. As much effort that is going on to try to contain this thing, let’s keep things in perspective. A trickle of fear in the brain can eventually turn into a trough that everything flows into.

The truth is that our health is constantly threatened by external toxins and “invaders” such as viruses and bacteria. We have little control over what is circulating in the air around us, but most of us have the ability to influence our immune system – how the body responds to these toxins.

Personal accountability means taking full responsibility for what we can control and letting go of what we can’t control. In the midst of all the unknowns in the current world narrative about this disease not enough emphasis is being placed on what we can control – our own response to the disease. Let’s not get so stressed about this that we create a self-fulfilling prophesy of a compromised immune system.

While much lies outside the sphere of influence in this impending endemic, here are three things we can all be accountable for:

1)    Get as much knowledge about what is happening as we can – from trusted sources.

2)    Learn as much about your immune system as you do about the disease. And put your energy into what you can impact – bolstering your well-being.

3)    Wash your hands.

Heroic Leadership: Lessons From The Golden Knights – By Fr. Max Oliva, S.J.

Well, the professional hockey season is over and the Washington Capitals have the Stanley Cup. Congratulations to the team. But that is not the main story for many of the rest of us. Our story is composed of part magic, part luck, and what I like to call the “four qualities of heroic leadership.” Let me explain.

First, here are the “four qualities” – Compassion and Commitment, Competency and Courage. We see these four aspects of leadership in the Las Vegas Golden Knights Hockey Team.

Compassion and Commitment: I will let writer, Ben Shpigel, of the New York Times (May 22nd) start us off: “The Golden Knights play in front of fans who appreciate how quickly and deeply the team has taken to their adopted city after the tragedy of October 1st, 5 days before Vegas’s first game. The tragedy strengthened the Golden Knights bond with the fans, who found healing in hockey (emphasis mine), a respite from their grief.”

The number “58” was retired by the Knights organization at the beginning of the season in a tribute to the 58 who were murdered on October 1stat an outdoor concert in Las Vegas.

So intimate is the connection between the team and the people of the Vegas Valley, that at the end of the fifth and final game of the Stanley Cup, the fans gave the team a thundering ovation. Commentator Ed Graney, of the Las Vegas Review Journal (June 8), looking past the final game of the season for the Knights wrote: “The big picture will stand on its own, ingrained into the fabric of this city, a team and a town and the impenetrable bond it will forever share.”

Competency and Courage: Here is Ben Shpigel again, writing of this expansion team that wasn’t expected to win many games in its inaugural year much less reach the playoffs: “No matter how many goals they scored (or did not score) last season, no matter how many saves they made (or did not make), the Golden Knights gathered for training camp before the season as equals – traded and exposed, discarded by their old teams, exiled to an expansion franchise in the middle of the desert. Disrespected and discounted, the Golden Knights coalesced around that snub.” Even their coach, Gerard Gallant, suffered a setback in his career when he was fired by the Florida Panthers in the fall of 2016; he is now a finalist for the Jack Adams Award as coach of the Year.

Compassion and Commitment, clearly; Competency and Courage indeed. This merry band of “Golden Misfits,” as the players call themselves, set professional hockey “on its ear” this year and helped the Las Vegas community grow in appreciation of itself. The team and its fans can be justly proud of who they are and what they accomplished this year.

Max Oliva, a Jesuit priest, has been a friend and mentor of mine for more than twenty years. He lived and ministered in Las Vegas from 2011 to 2017. He now resides in Spokane, Washington. However, he still works in the Vegas Valley on a part-time basis and was in Las Vegas on the day of the October 1 shooting as well as for the final game of the Stanley Cup. His main ministry has been serving men and women in the corporate community on the topics of ethics and spirituality, first in Calgary, Alberta, Canada and then in Las Vegas. He is the author of seven books on spirituality and ethics. His web site is: www.ethicsinthemarketplace.com

Achieving Engagement From Productivity

I’m concerned about the focus these days on employee engagement as if it were some kind of “special thing” to be pursued outside the usual day-to-day operations of a workplace. Engagement isn’t a goal to be sought. Rather, it’s an outcome of good leadership. The goal should be a well-run organization. The best run organizations have engaged employees, not because they are necessarily pursuing “an engaged workforce,” but because they are committed to a well-run organization. If you keep your eyes on the right priorities – on the right prize – engagement will naturally follow.

An adaptation of Gallup’s Q12 Index (https://q12.gallup.com/) provides a suggested checklist for leaders. If you sincerely pursue these endeavors toward a well-run organization, employee engagement will follow. In other words, these behaviors can assist the leader to do a much better job.

Don’t try to accomplish this massive list all at once. Start with getting a read on how your employees might perceive your leadership and begin to take action in any of these areas. Action on any one item on the checklist below will result in a better, well-run, engaged organization.

  • Are you doing everything you can to clarify the kind of employee you need on your team? Are you clearly assessing the kind of skills and attitude required of an employee before you hire them, so that in the hiring process you get the right kind of people on the bus? While you may refine behaviors, don’t count on changing people’s fundamental values.
  • Are you explaining to your people exactly what you expect from them, both in terms of operational results and the kind of behaviors you need to see demonstrated to support your values?
  • Are you doing everything you can to give them the skills, tools, resources, and capabilities to succeed at their job?
  • Have you linked your expectations with the purpose of your organization so they feel their contribution is valued?
  • Have you assessed their strengths so they are doing what they do best every day?
  • Are you getting out of your office at least every week and catching them doing their job well? Are you recognizing and celebrating success?
  • Do you genuinely care about them as people? Have you listened to what matters to them, what they value, and how you can best support them to use their job to achieve their personal goals?
  • Are you encouraging your employees to grow, learn, and develop themselves? When was the last time you recommended a good book for them to read?
  • Do you allow genuine input and collaboration from your team so their opinions actually matter? While you can’t possibly make every decision by consensus, do you explain – and demonstrate – that their input on as many decisions as possible will be taken seriously?
  • Do you set high standards and hold people to account to those standards? “Everyone knows who is and who is not performing, and they are looking to you, as the boss, to see what you are going to do about it.” (Collin Powell)
  • Are you encouraging the development of good friendships at work?
  • Are you openly talking with people about their progress toward the achievement of both personal and organizational goals – so there are no surprises if/when you do an annual review?
  • Are you bringing humility to your leadership by being honest, vulnerable, and teachable?
  • Are you making it safe for people to risk making mistakes, while ensuring that they learn from these mistakes?
  • Are you creating a culture of ownership, so that employees are encouraged, and held accountable to create conditions for success on their own rather than depending solely on you, the boss, to deliver this?

Moving into a position of leadership does not give you more power. What it gives you is more accountability. Leading a well-run organization takes time, patience, and a clear intention. Set a goal for a productive workplace and employee engagement will follow.

Employee Engagement: Is it Really The Boss’s Responsibility?

I grew up in a day and age well before “employee engagement”. I had five different jobs before I finished my university education: I worked on farms and ranches, survey crews, a cement company, a geriatrics unit in a psychiatric hospital, and as a janitor. I learned a lot in those jobs. I learned the value of education, to value people who were skilled at a trade, and the value of hard work.

I remember when, after pouring concrete for ten straight hours, the foreman over heard me complaining about how much I hated the work. He took me aside and said, “Son, we don’t have complainers on this crew. They call this thing work because you get paid to work. You don’t get paid to sit around. If you want to sit around, stay at home and don’t get paid. We pay you well to work, but we don’t pay you to complain. Do that on your own time.”

If I would have talked my bosses in those days about “employee engagement,” I believe they would have thought I had beans for brains. I can picture the foreman on the concrete crew saying, “My work is to get the job done; not to motivate you.”

I know we have supposedly come a long way and are now purportedly smarter in how we manage people, and allegedly are more skilled in the practice of leadership. While everyone agrees than an engaged workforce is beneficial, all of the insights and leadership efforts haven’t moved the dial much on getting them there. In all our efforts to create an engaging environment in our workplaces, I’ve never seen more entitlement.

Like children, the more people do for us, the more we expect. When I was a family counselor, I noticed an intriguing phenomenon: the children in a family that are the angriest at their parents are often the children who have been given the most.

Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s wonderful to learn to communicate with our staff and create an engaging, inspiring work environment. There is lot of research that says happier, more engaged employees are more productive.

Here are five responsibilities of a boss that will help engage employees:

  • Help create a clear vision. People largely change for one two reasons: inspiration or desperation. Great leaders create a powerful why, a clear and compelling shared purpose or cause that inspires.
  • Hire the right people. (I know, many of you had no choice over the employees that work on your teams; you are already behind the eight ball).
  • Be clear about what is expected. Ambiguity breeds mediocrity. You need to provide clarity as to the operational accountabilities as well as the kind of attitude that is needed to do the job, and build a link between each employee’s contribution to the why.
  • Support your team with a servant mind-set. Service leadership doesn’t mean pleasing leadership. Service leadership means understanding what supports are required for your employees to get their job done, and that you have their back to do whatever you can to give them the resources and capabilities to do what is expected. What your job isn’t, is to make them happy.
  • Hold them accountable by following through on the consequences. “Everyone on your team knows who is and who isn’t performing, and they are looking to you as the boss to do something about it.” said Colin Powell, the Former United States National Security Advisor. There are consequences to actions, both negative and positive. You don’t build a great place to work when you have low standards or when you let people off the hook. People need to see courage in their leaders, not coddling.

There is, no doubt, a need for caring in the workplace. We absolutely have to support and encourage people and create a place where they can feel safe to be honest and who they are. But let’s be careful because too much support and not enough demands can breed a culture of complaint and entitlement.

What I’m saying is that I’m not convinced that it’s the boss’s responsibility to get an employee engaged. If you can, that’s great. And if you can’t, don’t lose any sleep over it. It’s not your responsibility. Either people want to get their heart into the game or they don’t. You can still be a great leader even if you don’t get everyone on board. Relax and enjoy leading. Who knows? Maybe we’d be better off if bosses got back to what their ultimate job is: to make sure the job gets done and gets done well.