Open communication is critical during times of disruption. HR and D&I must equip managers to facilitate open dialogue on teams. This guide provides practical steps managers can take to foster psychological safety during times of crisis to encourage employees to feel more comfortable speaking up.
Times of crisis are uncomfortable and disruptive. This is true whether the crisis is a shared adversity (e.g., global pandemic, economic recession, natural disasters) or an individual struggle (e.g., medical emergency, financial hardship, domestic abuse). During any disruption, talking openly about challenges can be uncomfortable and daunting for several reasons, and individuals may hold back due to the risk of negative judgment, ridicule, rejection, or potentially retributive behavior. But disruptions make it all the more important for individuals and organizations to have relevant and accurate information. Employees and managersneed to feel comfortable both giving and receiving information in two-way dialogue.
Times of crisis and struggle can impact employees’ well-being as anxiety runs high and patience may be short, which in turn can negatively affect their performance at work. If left unchecked, small work disruptions could have broader implications for teams, colleagues, and the business overall. Even under normal circumstances, if individuals feel stifled to communicate freely and hold back on certain topics, these actions may cause further stress, anxiety, or related physical health symptoms. During a disruption such as COVID-19, the quality of two-way communication can have a direct impact on not just an employee’s ability to perform, but also the physical and emotional well-being of the employee, colleagues, and potentially more broadly, the public. Fostering a sense of psychological safety during a global pandemic can potentially enable employees to share life-saving information.
Psychological safety is the shared belief that members of a team feel comfortable taking interpersonal risks. When it exists, employees feel safe to share their perspectives without retaliation. Organizations that foster psychological safety benefit because it promotes teamwork, encourages employee authenticity, fosters learning and innovation, and drives business outcomes such as on-the-job effort and intent to stay.
As shown in Figure 1, the risk of not achieving adequate psychological safety can lead to counterproductive cycles of fear and blame. No one likes to give or receive what could be perceived as “bad news,” such as the possibility that a sick co-worker could contaminate and shut down an entire workplace. However, organizations fare better when challenges are transparent, so that leaders know and can respond to them earlier rather than later. Even if organizations have the means available to mitigate collective or individual hardships, they cannot respond to circumstances that they either are unaware of or don’t understand properly. As difficult as it might be to have uncomfortable conversations, leaders cannot fix problems that we can’t even talk about. By analogy, it is easier to deal with a brush fire, rather than deal with a forest fire that had time to grow out of control. If employees fear repercussions for speaking their mind or raising uncomfortable issues, those problems are likely to grow in silence instead of seeking solutions in the early stages.
Employees and managers may feel higher levels of psychological safety when discussing routine and familiar topics that maintain the status quo, but a moment of shared or personal disruption might push the boundaries of safety. At the same time, especially during a crisis, employees especially need to feel confident that they can share information that is relevant to their ability to work effectively. Employees must perceive safety and share what their managers and organizations need to know, not just what employees perceive managers want to hear.Unexpected challenges and fear of the unknown are constant companions in times of crisis, and the crisis may lead employees to express statements that managers need to know, including the following:
“I’m afraid that getting sick will negatively affect my pay or employment. I can’t afford to go without work. I’m scared of company layoffs.”
“I’m not sure what I’m expected to do, especially working remotely when my usual support networks aren’t available in the same way. How can I ask for help without it reflecting negatively on me?”
“I’m overwhelmed trying to balance obligations of work and family, but our company culture is not to complain or let your private life interfere.”
“Some co-workers are violating the procedures we are all supposed to follow. I don’t want to get them in trouble or be considered a troublemaker, but they are putting us all at risk.”
“Work assignments have been redistributed, and now it feels like I’m picking up the slack of others. When my co-workers can’t take on tasks because they have children at home or get sick, I’m expected to do more than usual. I don’t want to say anything and risk being accused of not being a team player.”
“I’m actually doing very well working in the new remote arrangements, but I know that’s not true for others. I feel like I shouldn’t express this honestly since my colleagues are struggling. Being disingenuous is a strain on our working relationships.”
All levels of leadership have a role in promoting psychological safety within an organization. Building and maintaining trust requires a concerted and consistent effort from all leaders. The C-suite sets the tone with policy and procedures about how the organization takes action in response to disruptions. Leaders cultivate psychological safety by inviting input on what is inhibiting open communication and by creating consistent messaging on culture and expectations. Managers are the everyday face of leadership to employees, andmay find it challenging to prompt open, two-way communication with their direct reports, especially if they are dealing with their own feelings and concerns from the disruptions. Working remotely removes managers from some of the usual cues that let them in on what an employee might be actually feeling, so it is critical that they adapt their typical observations and lead with empathy. For instance, an employee who may normally say, “Everything is great,” could be indicating a problem just by saying, “Well, it’s been a long hard week.” Those working on-site might be preoccupied with competing priorities, especially if the crisis has disrupted normal routines. Managers are on the front lines to foster psychological safety in their daily interactions with employees, and there are some practical steps they can follow to make this real for their teams.
1.Know what can hinder psychological safety.
Four inhibiting factors are ambiguity, mismatched expectations, interpersonal or social threats, and employee well-being.
2.Celebrate courageous conversations.
Express appreciation for employees’ willingness to vocalize questions, doubts, and confusion, and help them determine the best next steps.
3.Practice empathy and curiosity.
Don’t make assumptions, jump to conclusions, or change the subject. Everyone’s experience is unique, so seek to understand the situation from direct reports’ perspectives. Pay attention to tone of voice, body language, and context to gauge how colleagues are feeling as they speak with you and their teammates.
4.Don’t rush to give advice or offer solutions.
Managers should seek to understand before they are understood; if someone shares a fear or challenging circumstance, resist the urge to fix it prematurely. Sometimes people share their concerns just to feel seen and validated. For instance, if an employee is concerned about a sick family member, a response of “I’m sure it will be ok” may be counterproductive and come across as disingenuous. Better to respond “I’m glad you shared this with me. Is there anything that would help at this time?”
5.Clarify roles and expectations.
Especially during times of change and uncertainty, take the time to set clear goals and verbalize expectations for employees to help them feel confident in their roles and throughout their projects. Be honest about what you know and don’t know.
6.Seek out other resources.
Even on a team where employees trust their manager, managers are likely not fully equipped to handle the breadth of employee emotions related to a crisis situation, so know where to direct employees for more support, such as connecting with peers or other leaders, leveraging ERG networks, or EAP and counselling services.
7.Escalate questions and concerns.
Follow your organization’s established set of criteria for managers to use when handling questions, concerns, or allegations made by employees. If necessary, managers should be prepared to channel information to the appropriate function (e.g., compliance, HR, legal, security). When in doubt or if such criteria don’t exist, alert the next level of leadership and ask for guidance.
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