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The benefits of high employee engagement are unmistakeable. Pioneered by the Gallup organization, high engagement is linked to several benefits: lower absenteeism and turnover, less shrinkage (theft) and safety incidents, higher quality, and 23% higher profitability.
Employees who are highly engaged strongly agree with statements like, “There is someone at work who encourages my development,” and “At work, my opinion seems to count.” And most importantly, they agree with the statement, “At work, I have the opportunity to do what I am best at every day.”
But before we can even get to these statements, there is some groundwork that needs to be laid. Employees cannot evaluate these statements until they feel they are around people who care and that is safe to speak out even if their opinions or perspectives might be unpopular. This is where safety and belonging come in.
Amy C. Edmondson is the world’s most well-known champion of psychological safety. Her work and research confirm that high performing organizations have a shared belief around safety. Psychological safety unlocks team productivity by encouraging diverse opinions, healthy debate, and experimental thinking.
When we met with Amy and invited her to Season 3 of Unleashed, she told us that psychological safety does not happen by accident. Creating a culture of psychological safety involves:
- Setting the stage - reminding people that we are in a complex, uncertain, challenging world. “Call attention to the uncertainty.” We all need to balance advocacy and inquiry. We spend lots of time advocating (usually for our own position) and telling without enough inquiry. There needs a healthy level of candor that is both compassionate and humble.
- Reinforcing the purpose, and why we are going to work hard against the challenges. It makes sense that we should listen to experts, but for complex problems (wicked problems) you also need diverse, non-expert perspectives because expertise can sometimes blind us to new ideas.
- Inviting participation - the art is asking open questions. Questions like: “What options are you thinking of? What ideas do you have?”
- Responding productively - speaking in an appreciative way AND forward-looking. Teamwork often requires an abundance mentality; stepping back and realizing that many situations are not win-lose, but win-win by expanding the opportunity.
“Psychological safety is not at odds with having tough conversations – it is what allows us to have tough conversations."
-Amy C Edmondson
Safety allows teams to wrestle with the brutal facts, to confront to uncomfortable and even unpopular perspectives. Often key perspectives and issues are not put on the table and addressed when people fear being seen as an outlier, non-credible or even stupid. In a safe environment, there are no dumb questions except, as it is said, the ones that do not get asked.
Amy notes that leaders need to be mindful of how they listen and react to these unpopular perspectives and opinions. If a leader is dismissive initially, then the opinion giver is less likely to do the same in future. Instead, the correct response when getting information like this from others is to be thankful and forward looking. For example, if an employee brings to us some information about a weakness in an organizational process, we will want to say something like, “Thank you so much for pointing that out. Let’s get the team together next week to investigate that further.”
The same applies if an employee or colleague is pointing out one of our blind spots. If someone says, “hey, I think when you talk to Bill in Operations, you always interrupt him. He speaks slowly, and it seems like you are always in a hurry and want to get your message across, and then get on to your next thing.” The natural response is to get defensive and say something like, “I don’t think I do that,” or to justify with, “well I am busy, so …”
Instead, we need to keep those reactions in check and respond with something like, “hmm, OK, I didn’t know I was doing that. Thanks for that insight. I will give that some thought and if that’s the case certainly make some adjustments. May I come back to you once I’ve had a chance to think about it?” Note the subtlety here: we don’t necessarily have to accept the perspective as truth right away. We simply must acknowledge that the person has been heard and we are taking their opinion seriously. Of course, we need to follow through with the future discussion.
In his book, “The Four Stages of Psychological Safety,” author Timothy R Clarke describes the four levels or stages team members move through:
- Inclusion Safety – members of the team feel wanted, appreciated and comfortable being on the team. There is a sense of belonging.
- Learner Safety – these individuals can learn through asking questions. They don’t feel asking questions is a risk, and they are willing to make mistakes and ask for help.
- Contributor Safety – members can contribute their own ideas and perspectives, even if those may be unpopular or not widely held, without fear of persecution or embarrassment.
- Challenger Safety – these members are comfortable challenging the ideas of others, even to the point of criticizing the idea (not the person) and proposing major changes to the position.
A culture of safety underpins trust. If we are surrounded by people whom we trust, who we believe have our best interests in mind, we become willing to voice unpopular opinions. Without it we might just keep those opinions to ourselves. Wayne Gretzky is credited with saying, “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” In a similar way, we miss 100% of the opinions we don’t hear.
For leaders, this is essential. We must have people around us who will not only voice new information and perspectives but call out our blind spots. In some organizations we’ve worked with, the phrase is, “calling us out on our own bullshit.”
Safety and belonging go hand in hand. Belonging is defined as having an affinity for a situation and a place, a sense of respect and care from the people around you.
Dan Coyle introduced the idea of belonging cues in his book, “The Culture Code.” Belonging cures are non-verbal behaviors that are picked up by our subconscious when we operate in groups. The characteristics of these cues communicate to individuals that:
- We are investing energy in our relationship with you.
- Around here individuals are valued.
- The group has high standards.
- Together we believe we can meet those high standards.
Our primitive brains have been conditioned to always be on the lookout for threats, especially when we enter unfamiliar territory. We are on guard and our defences are up. These threshold moments are crucial when new team members join a group or organization. What we see and feel establishes the precedent for answering the questions, “do I belong here?” and “do I feel safe here?”
When belonging cues are repeated the answer to these questions is “yes.” Fears are replaced with connection. When people feel safe and that they belong the walls start coming down and are replaced by openness, sharing and full engagement.
As we will see later, leaders play a crucial roll in setting the stage for safety and belonging. Belonging cues that leaders should pay attention to are:
- Overcommunicate listening.
- Spotlight fallibility.
- Hug the messenger.
- Over-do it with saying thank you.
One of the most powerful things a leader can say is “I screwed up.” This cue tells others that it is safe to be fallible – to be human.
The Engagement Equation
Highly engaged employees are an important ingredient for company success. When employees are aligned, bought in, and engaged, organizations thrive. But we will never get to engagement without first ensuring the predecessors of psychological safety and belonging are in place.
If you’d like to learn more about how to build a high-performance company, or other ways you can take the simpler path to creating a great business, connect with us.