There has been slow, steady progress over the years of the industrial revolution to improve the physical safety of workers. At the time, the assessment of company leaders, unions, and government agencies continued to demonstrate the fact that when employees feel physically safe in the workplace, their work improves and operational efficiency of the business increases.
Fast forward a generation or two into our current environment where the pace of change and disruption in the marketplace continues to accelerate, and we see the emergence of a new kind of need for safety in the workplace that can drive improved performance. Academics and business consultants studying leadership effectiveness would document the need for individuals to feel mentally and emotionally safe to share different points of view, raise topics without fear of repercussions, and have difficult conversations in a timely manner as the new, critical area of feeling safe in the workplace that will sustain improved business performance.
There is solid evidence for leaders to ensure team members feel safe to speak up and address key issues head-on without a significant fear of being viewed as “not a team player” or more directly, being labeled as a pain-in-the-ass that slows down the process and who will most likely be passed over at the next talent management review.
The business issues continue to get more complex and leaders can’t be on the front lines in all sectors. It is important for leaders to have people on the ground with a sense of safety to quickly raise key customer challenges, emerging competitive pressures, or indications when the original plan is coming off the rails to ensure the survival of the business. In addition to the marketplace front lines, toxic internal/HQ environments can also disrupt the long-term health of the company as we have witnessed over the years with accounting irregularities that were never surfaced or the revelations that the #MeToo movement has brought to boardrooms in every business sector.
Ensuring team members feel safe in routine interactions and meetings, operations reviews, strategic planning sessions, talent assessments, etc. is critical to the long-term strength of the business. Here are a few ideas to ensure leaders create an environment where team members feel safe:
- Set the Example: There is no greater action step than leaders demonstrating the courage to raise key issues and put difficult topics on the table. We must “walk the talk” as leaders if we want others to follow.
- Different Viewpoints: Leaders need to acknowledge the truth that we all see the world as we are, not as it is. Ensuring we gather a wide, diverse set of viewpoints is critical to making the most effective decisions on complex business challenges. Leadership teams comprised of everyone having the same viewpoint will miss major shifts in the market and the impact of toxic behavior within the larger organization.
- Recognition: Leaders need to consistently take time “in the moment” to recognize team members who make courageous attempts to speak up on relevant topics. We would all love difficult topics to be raised in a respectful and thoughtful way. However, in the workplace, just like life, things can get messy. Leaders needs to recognize issues being raised even when they are not done in alignment with some “old school” company protocol as there is a greater risk of continuing to sweep critical issues under the rug vs not abiding by a traditional process. Over time, some coaching and training can help team members raise issues in a more effective way, but for now, priority should be given to getting the issue on the table in any format.
Modeling the above behaviors will help leaders build the healthy culture that companies need to ensure team members feel mentally and emotionally safe to effectively contribute to the long-term success of the business.
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