“She says all ideas are welcome here, but then in the next second tells us all what to do. There’s no point in speaking up. It falls on deaf ears”
“Everyone just smiles on camera and says they are fine. I just stay on mute and keep my head down. I don’t know how to tell them I am not coping. That each day is a stretch for me.”
“My manager spoke poorly about me behind my back. He didn’t share what was going on, My job changed and he disappeared for weeks on end during lockdown. I did not know what to do”
Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?
It is precisely in these challenging times of the pandemic that we most need psychological safety to speak with candor and vulnerability. Yet it is often in these very times that we inadvertently damage psychological safety and betray trust.
Our trust is broken on three levels. At an organization level budgets have been slashed, jobs lost, businesses reorganized, jobs changed, performance pressure increased, tensions have risen, and tempers flared. At a leadership level, individual managers are straddling business as usual operations with transforming the business in pivoting products and processes. And business pressures trump individual fragility. Some leaders have sown distrust in their teams as they micromanage WFH arrangements, take on key decisions instead of devolving these, show no tolerance of performance deviations. A culture of working 24/7 has become the norm in many businesses. Oftentimes leaders do not pay enough attention to each individual member of their team. Jobs and pay have been cut and those remaining may tolerate higher levels of stress and work pressure to keep their jobs and prospects of career security. At an individual level, burnout, emotional exhaustion and mental challenges have been skyrocketing and this is not sustainable. We face loss, grief and low-grade fear each and every day. On a personal level we withdraw and do not bring our voice or ideas into the team and we do not speak up with our manager to either raise ideas or challenges, let alone to share how we really feel.
THREE LEVELS OF TRUST
Trust dimensions straddle self, leadership and organizational culture & systems
TRUST IS IMPORTANT
Trust is an important ingredient to build a psychological safety at work. And where there is low trust and even distrust, there is psychological danger, self-protection, a silo mentality, backstabbing, clicks are formed as the out groups are excluded While we fear job loss and a threat to our livelihood we withdraw and withhold questions, suggestions and critical thinking. What is needed though to survive in challenging times is to have all hands-on deck to turn businesses around and to keep innovating and responding to clients’ emerging needs. This needs the candor, contributions and engagement of all members of the team.
Such betrayal damages individuals, relationships, and performance. It robs people of their ability to believe in themselves and diminishes their capacity to contribute wholeheartedly to the organization. When people feel betrayed, they pull back. Morale declines, as does productivity.
Reina & Reina 2006
So the question is then can we and if so, how do we rebuild trust when it is broken? And how do we build psychological safety from here?
But if people feel too much distress, they will fight, flee, or freeze….(This) requires (leadership) to create a culture of courageous conversations. In a period of sustained uncertainty, the most difficult topics must be discussed. Dissenters who can provide crucial insights need to be protected from the organizational pressure to remain silent. Executives need to listen to unfamiliar voices and set the tone for candor and risk taking.
Heifetz, Grashow & Linsky (2009)
Rebuilding trust is both a process and a skill in how to sustain consistent trustworthy relationships and predictability of the organization, the leadership and ourselves. The good news is that it can be rebuilt, although when working from a deficit, this gap needs to be filled first, before trust can be built. This requires a recommitment to a different culture and way of working and it requires some effort to rebuild and remain on course.
- Rebuilding Organisational and systemic trust
Part of building a new organizational culture involves embedding systems, policies and procedures and ways of working that reinforce and build the desired culture. Amy Edmondson and Per Hugander (2021) suggest visualization as a useful technique to help leadership envision the desired ways of working with candor and vulnerability and to see the benefits and results this brings. Beyond being clear on the desired culture, each and every day habits and norms of how meetings are conducted, how WFH is managed, how transparent communications are, how collaborative teams are formed, how teams are recognized, how risk taking and innovation is encouraged, how personal wellbeing is seen to matter. All of these processes and patterns add credit into the trust account. But when the trust account is in debit, so the formal and informal culture and way of working needs to be supportive of high levels of engagement and open communications, and these need to be reinforced on every occasion to rebuild the bank account of transparency and consistency. This is where leadership is key.
- Rebuilding trust in our leadership
Assuming then that the individual leaders commit to rebuilding trust, then ways of practicing and building these habits must be implemented.
Hurley outlines a model around the decision to trust (2006) which he suggests leaders can use to rebuild broken trust. These can be built into the organizational dynamics as well.
The factors include supporting fear of risk or low levels of risk tolerance and levels of adjustment, managing relative power and sense of security and comfort of team levels, reinforcing the shared identity and interests of the ‘we’, demonstrating consistent benevolent concern, showing capable and consistent integrity and higher levels of candor of communications.
One powerful way to do this is to set up leadership circles in which the leaders learn and practice new ways of working. The leadership circles are facilitated as they engage in conversations around relevant curated themes from which they apply learning and new ways of working, to reflect on progress in the next leadership circle. It is through the very circle that they learn to live by and apply psychological safety for themselves and their teams. Both individual and leadership teams need to build their skills and have opportunities to apply these in real time.
Small acts of vulnerability and regular and consistent assurances of trustworthiness are essential to build some modicum of relationships. It does fall on the leaders of teams to be transparent and open and to model their own vulnerability. Where need be conversations can be facilitated with an external party to express and clear pent up hurt and to move to a place of forgiveness and healing. A team can remain stuck unless there is some way of letting go in order to move forward. Many leaders find this hard and it will necessarily be a personal and potentially awkward conversation, unless held in a way that can also mirror psychological safety. The best way to get to change is through action. Leaders can put certain challenges on the table that require all input and commitment to use as a way to move into the new ways of being.
Leader humility, authenticity, and openness instils trust and psychological safety. In turn, trust and psychological safety empower individuals and teams to perform at their highest capabilities. Additionally, continuously learning teams are essential for keeping pace with and effectively navigating 3-D change. (Chima & Gutman, 2020)
- Rebuilding trust in ourselves
We lose faith in ourselves when we hold back, when we stop sharing ideas and when we stop asking. Our self-confidence may plummet. So we need to check in with ourselves and ask whether we are being trustworthy and whether we are crafting candor and vulnerability through our own contributions. This has been a subject of much debate as some businesses turn to training their employees and team members to ‘speak up’. Yes we can all learn skills in this but if the leadership and overarching organizational tone is not of psychological safety no amount of training to build the amount of sharing.
Part of building our trust in ourselves is learning self-compassion and understanding, that we acknowledge and accept the level of trauma we may be facing. And with this we can practice sharing and asking for support and encouragement. However, this also calls for self-care of our physical and emotional needs. Having confidants and sanctuaries to self-reflect and have support are so important (Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky, 2009), and to build emotional agility whereby emotions become a source of data to what is important to us so that we can live by values-based actions.
The neuroscience of trust actually shows that key management behaviours that simulate the production of oxytocin, builds trust (Zak, 2017). These practices are to recognize excellence, induce team challenge give discretion over how do their work and enable job crafting, share information broadly and intentionally build relationships, facilitate whole person growth, and show vulnerability.
Trust can be intentionally rebuilt between leaders and teams and of the trustworthiness of organisations built, and then psychological safety can be firmly entrenched as a way of being together.
Zak (2017) found from research that the effect of trust on self-reported work performance is powerful. The respondents had 106% more energy and were 76% more engaged at work, also reporting being 50% more productive. He also found that 66% felt closer to their colleagues. A high-trust culture was found to improve how people treat one another and themselves as 40% experience less burnout and 41% felt a greater sense of accomplishment. This is certainly worth aiming for.
Chima, A. & Gutman, R. (2020) What it takes to lead through an era of exponential change, Harvard Business Review
Edmondson, A.C. & Hugander, P. (2021), 4 steps to boost psychological safety at your workplace, Harvard Business Review
Edmondson, A.C. & Lei, Z. (2014) Psychological safety: the history, renaissance, and future of an interpersonal construct, The Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior.
Heifetz, R., Grashow, A. & Linsky, M. (2009) Leadership in a (permanent) crisis. Harvard Business Review
Hurley, R.F. (2006) The decision to trust, Harvard Business Review
Lewicki, R.J., Mcallister, D.J. & Bies, R.J. (1998) Trust and distrust: new relationships and realities, Academy of Management Review (23;3)
Reina, D.S. & Reina, M.L. (2006) Rebuilding trust within organizations, Systems Thinker (17,1)
Zak, P.J. (2017) The neuroscience of trust, Harvard