Psychological safety and the importance of calm and mindful leadership
by guest author, Gerard Hoffman, Registered Social Worker, Counsellor and Organisational Wellbeing Consultant
A strategic focus on Workplace Wellbeing within organisations is increasingly being seen as a non negotiable priority. The experience of Covid-19 across NZ has put into a spotlight again the importance of organisations looking after the emotional wellbeing of their employees – especially during challenging times where anxiety, uncertainty and organisational change is apparent.
A holistic model of organisational wellbeing focusses on three key areas of strategic focus: Strategies that enhance individual wellbeing and resilience; build leadership capacity to create psychological safety; and take a whole of organisation perspective – me, we and us. Examples of these would include encouraging work life balance practices for employees, training people leaders in mental wellbeing promotion and in compassionate conflict resolution, and developing a whole of organisation wellbeing strategy.
Harvard Business School professor Dr Amy Edmonson describes a psychologically safe workplace as one where people have “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”
There is clear evidence that workplaces that prioritise the wellbeing of their staff, create and nurture a psychologically safe culture and environment, have more engaged and high performing employees, lower absenteeism and a better bottom line. It is the single most important determiner of staff engagement.
Leaders have a responsibility for building a culture of psychological safety which includes acknowledging fallibility, being accessible, balancing accountability with respectful behaviour, and openness to learning from mistakes.
The unique challenges of Covid-19 have also led to high rates of burnout amongst employees this year. The ability of staff and organisations to recognise the early warning signs of burnout – including addressing early on, threats to wellbeing such as high levels of stress, organisational change, uncertainty and personal perceptions of loss – is crucial. People facing these factors need help to ensure they build in recovery breaks and stress management techniques on a daily basis and remain vigilant for the signs of burnout: exhaustion, feelings of dread, anxiety and depression, brain overload, cynicism and disengagement at work, and a crisis of self confidence.
Many people have experienced heightened anxiety in the face of rapid and frequent changes in the Covid-19 situation this year and their fight-fright-freeze psychological response reflex has meant that they remain emotionally reactive and fearful. Organisations can, and should, anticipate these staff needs by building leadership capacity to support staff wellbeing.
This past 9 months has also seen the emergence of real clarity about the importance of what I call calm and mindful leadership attributes which include:
- Displaying genuine empathy and support for their colleagues
- Communicating well and often – to reduce anxiety and uncertainty
- Role modelling emotional evenness and calm
- Prioritising connectedness in the workplace
- Creating psychological safety at work – especially a climate of openness, learning from mistakes and high trust
These behaviours are often not recognised or explicitly taught to new or even experienced leaders, and technical skill and operational priorities often dominate. Teaching leaders skills in empathy, building rapport, encouraging the quieter team members to speak up, naming and addressing interpersonal micro aggressions and ensuring true collaboration within the workplace should be a priority focus.
Finally, we all have a responsibility to take personally the task of protecting or building our own resilience. Emotional resilience includes developing preventative strategies such as ensuring we have realistic expectations about the future including what we need to prepare for, maintaining a work-life balance and ensuring we stay strongly connected to others, both at work and home.
We also need to develop a resilience tool kit of coping strategies that we can call on at high stress and pressure times, which include stress management techniques such as switching off, mindfulness practices, taking recovery breaks, learning how to shift negative emotional states and finally, having the ability to take proactive action when we recognise the early signs of burnout.
Take a moment to reflect on how well your own workplace and people leaders enable a climate of psychological safety; and also, how established your own resiliency strategies are.
Gerard is a clinical social worker, counsellor and trainer in private practice. He is also the proud father of three girls and grandfather of two. Gerard is passionate about normalising mental health as something we all have and believes that our organisations and ourselves should prioritise gentleness, kindness and well-being promotion in daily life.
You can contact Gerard at Wallhoff435@gmail.com.