How leaders are (unwittingly) damaging psychological safety in the workplace, and what you can do about it
05 March 2018
The growing number of high-profile cases of sexual harassment currently in the press are clear examples of senior people - whether film impresarios, television stars or senior politicians - abusing their power over subordinates. They are obvious and compelling cases of how people’s needs for psychological safety and security at work – not to mention respect, fairness and decency – are being damaged and undermined. It’s not hard to imagine the negative effect such behaviour has on the victim’s sense of engagement or motivation in their world of work.
But it’s not just the Harvey Weinstein’s of the world who are responsible for this. The current crop of harassment cases has got us thinking: what else do we do as leaders – whether consciously or unconsciously – that can also threaten or damage the psychological safety, security, fairness and respect that people need at work?
Of course, we know there’s more to engagement than enabling people to feel psychologically secure, but if this feeling of safety is absent, there are no foundations in place upon which to build the next steps.
In this article, we will explore five ways in which some leaders and managers put the engagement of their people at risk, and offer remedies which HR leaders and colleagues can apply in each situation. We are sure this isn’t an exhaustive list. We are also sure that each of these sets of unhelpful behaviours by leaders is more prevalent, and has a greater impact, during times of change and uncertainty. All the more reason to be vigilant now to ensure they don’t appear in your organisation.
Five unhelpful behaviours that threaten psychological security
Some leaders believe that achieving their goals is best achieved through overt demonstrations of their power and authority. Such leaders love their status symbols – corner offices, penthouse suites, limousines, deep carpets, club class business travel. They make a point of matching these with behaviour that highlights their own superiority such as keeping you waiting, sitting behind a large desk, making you sit at a lower level, not replying to your emails or always putting their own needs first.
This behaviour is where leaders or managers appear to put up a psychological barrier between themselves and their people. They avoid all opportunities to build trusting relationships with their people and deny their people the opportunity to do so with them. They treat their people with an air of superiority and coolness, rather than with humanity and warmth. Sometimes this behaviour is entirely unconscious and the leader in question might be puzzled when it is pointed out to him or her. At other times it is deliberate: a result of the (in our view, out-dated) belief that leaders secure their authority over their teams by being distant and aloof. Such leaders proclaim that they don’t want their teams to “like” them – they just want people to deliver results.
This is the behaviour of leaders who are always finding fault with their team members and their work. They see their role as to point out what is wrong and correct mistakes. They will often ignore suggestions from others, who end up believing that nothing they contribute will be deemed worthwhile or appreciated and as a consequence cease offering their suggestions or effort. These leaders often ask “Why should I say Thank you? People are being paid to do their jobs, aren’t they? What more do they want?”
These leaders take away their people’s confidence through constant checking and micro-managing. Their hands-on, continuous monitoring robs people of their sense of autonomy and freedom. These leaders treat their people as minions who must obey their orders. They frequently complain about the poor quality of their team members and may comment that their people can’t be trusted.
Intimidation or bullying
We use these words as a short-hand for all the different ways a leader can use their anger, moods and emotions to cause fear and uncertainty in those around them. These leaders will sometimes shout at their people, and use their anger, temper, surliness or harsh words to keep people on their toes. Their people are forever having to second-guess the mood and emotional state that their boss will arrive in at the next meeting, or next encounter.
How you can mitigate behaviours that threaten psychological security
If all the behaviours above are entirely absent in your organisation then well done! You probably have the foundations of psychological safety from which you can start building an authentic sense of engagement.
But if even a few of your leaders or managers are locked into one or more of the behavioural patterns above, the chances are their people’s deep and real needs for psychological security at work are being threatened or undermined. So, what can you do about it?
The answer lies in recognising that all of these patterns of behaviour almost certainly fly in the face of your organisation’s espoused values. As an HR leader or senior executive, you need to start a conversation with your Chief Executive Officer to contrast the behaviour you are observing with the values that the organisation says it stands for. In short, you need to gain his or her agreement that the behaviours you are observing are unacceptable.
Next, you need to summon up the courage to have a conversation with, and give feedback to, the leader who is demonstrating this behaviour. The model for holding this conversation is fully described in our book 5 Conversations to Transform Trust and Engagement at Work under the heading of “Conversation 4: Challenging unhelpful behaviour”. Based on the principles of Non-Violent (or Compassionate) Communication, it advocates a dialogue with the following stages:
- Vocalise your observations of the behavioural patterns witnessed or reported.
- Describe how the behaviour appears to contradict the values of the organisation and how it is affecting you and those in receipt of the behaviour.
- Outline the consequences if the behaviour is not changed – and crucially, why it matters.
- Make a request for different behaviour in the future.
Finally, you need to stand up for what you believe in, even if this means putting your career on the line. For example, we know of one HR Director, who upon being asked by her Chief Executive Officer to overlook an instance of sexual harassment in the organisation, declared “You will have to fire me before I let this behaviour go unaddressed.” Behaviour will not be seen as unacceptable or changed if people turn a blind eye out of fear – in fact, it will further damage engagement.
A foundation to engagement at work is that people feel psychologically secure and safe, and are treated with respect, fairness and decency. It is therefore crucial that you, as a leader, tackle any patterns of behaviour that threaten this deep, human need head-on. It sounds dramatic, but the success and stability of your organisation and your people depend on it.