I am currently working with a large, multinational organisation that has a powerful brand – they perform exceptionally, are active corporate citizens and, on the face of it, are an amazing business to work for. Young graduates and job seekers are desperate for roles in this mighty enterprise.
However, on the ground, the people talk of pockets of highly toxic culture, a continuous drive to perform at all costs, no place for failure (even mistakes that simply happen in the course of business), a disregard for work-life balance and a disconnect from the original ethos of the business. Over the past year, their staff seeking support for mental health issues, has tripled.
This business has also recorded it’s highest attrition in history. People are not only leaving for better opportunities but for better wellbeing. It’s not to say that the business doesn’t have wellbeing programmes and practices in place, of course they do. They just aren’t enough.
My fear is that this organisation is simply one of many. Across the globe, organisations are desperately trying to rebuild, restore and recoup losses and setbacks incurred over the pandemic. This is understandable as shareholders still seek their returns. The facts, however, speak for themselves – people are leaving their employers in droves (see the Great Resignation) and mental health related issues have sky-rocketed.
Wellbeing programmes and mental health support, like those offered by my client, are certainly important – they do make a difference. However, if the culture on the ground is toxic, these simply serve as a band-aid and only address the issues symptomatically. We need these methods of support AND we need to fundamentally transform the lived and experienced culture within teams.
In my experience, when people understand the simple science behind social safety, and how we are all wired for it, it creates sufficient awareness to start the transformation. What is social safety, you may ask? Social safety is simply the neurobiological need that all humans have to feel safe – safe in our “tribe”- whether at home, socially or at work. This human need for social safety is created at an organisational level through fostering a culture of psychological safety or, as professor Amy Edmondson says, “a shared belief that a team is a safe place for individual and interpersonal risk-taking”.
So what can we do differently across our businesses to turn the tide of emotional and mental health issues? It all starts with a little introspection and a conversation – lots of little conversations, in fact. These conversations, that are often difficult, need to be had with teams, across the business, between people and leaders. Each conversation demands a commitment to addressing the unhealthy team behaviours, to rewriting the invisible toxic culture and creating mutual accountability for proactively cultivating a way of being that is human centred.
Here is a simple recipe to start this process:
- Spend some time mindfully observing your behaviour in the workplace. Do you engage all people equally, irrespective of background and gender? Do you admit your own weaknesses openly and share your stories of how, and when you have battled at work? Do you provide safety for others to be vulnerable? Do you invite others ideas and make them feel valued? Are you complicit in the toxic politics?
- Have the team explore their views around the team culture, openly, honestly and in a safe space. What behaviours do they observe that break down trust? Do they feel free to contribute and share openly? Can team members speak of their mistakes without fear of retribution? Do they feel that their team has their back?
- Examine your processes and systems. Do your processes, such as performance management, support the measurement of outcomes that inadvertently lead to a lack of social safety and perceived threat? Do you reward the absence of errors in work? Do you reward the long hours and the innate competition that develops between teams?
The time to examine the hidden team cultures is now. If we do not act, we are complicit in fuelling the mental health crisis. This is not a topic that we should shy away from but rather embrace. Shouldn’t you do the same?