Words Matter – Five Ways to Build a Productive and Stable Workforce through Psychological Safety

Companies spend millions of dollars recruiting and hiring the best and brightest employees on the market. But, how do you ensure those employees are provided an environment to maximize productivity?  

Some managers or corporate cultures can paralyze even the best employees if they believe they’re overly criticized or embarrassed for making mistakes at work. That’s why more organizations are changing their work environments to create a culture of psychological safety where employees can confidently speak up with ideas, questions, concerns and make mistakes without being punished or humiliated. 

Companies that create and maintain this type of work environment benefit by retaining and attracting productive employees who are more inclined to collaborate and share a sense of comfort and wellbeing in their jobs. 

Now,  as the country tries to recover from a divisive election, employee psychological safety can be undermined if workers  believe they fall outside the political boundaries of their bosses and co-workers. This is why psychological safety depends less on your policies and more on how your employees and management communicate.   

It could be argued that the concept of psychological safety dates back thousands of years as early humans evolved. Those who were always afraid of being eaten by predators were less likely to undertake higher pursuits and advancements in areas like farming, hunting and construction. 

This concept now surfaces in traditional in-person meetings, employee reviews and social cliques. Employees who feel like their managers are constantly trying to fire them or believe their teammates don’t respect them can’t perform at their highest levels.   

If you don’t feel safe in your environment, you’re less likely to ask questions, admit to mistakes, and more likely to blame others, which creates an enormous barrier for you and your team to learn and improve.   

We’re all especially vulnerable now in the middle of this global pandemic. Who isn’t worrying about getting sick or losing their job? We’re separated from our bosses and colleagues as we struggle to make sense of our new remote work environment. We’ve replaced our day-to-day social connections with video conferencing, group messaging platforms and texts.  In this new world, it’s so much easier to misinterpret feedback and miscommunicate in ways that appear critical and dismissive.

Here are five ways to help create a work environment that makes employees feel safe to take risks and be more productive.

Provide affirmation and support over remote platforms

If we think email is easy to misunderstand, today’s new remote tools are far worse with an audience of peers and superiors. On average, employees probably understand half of their coworkers’ daily emails. And that’s with the benefit of the added time we can take composing the content. 

However, messaging apps like Slack and Microsoft Teams offer a more immediate and potentially less considered response, creating an environment where employees are criticized and ridiculed in front of others.  

For example, what if an engineer makes grammar and spelling mistakes while introducing an idea to a group of marketing professionals over Slack? If someone in that group chat pokes fun at the content or corrects the grammar, that engineer will be far less likely to participate in that forum again. Casual and off the cuff remarks can devastate employee morale and diminish future innovations, especially when they’re from senior executives.

As we’ve seen, video conferencing has been extremely tough for some workers to adopt. The medium also provides an environment where employees can drown out their colleagues and dominate conversations. Getting a word in edgewise can be near impossible with a large virtual gathering, especially if you have a slow Internet connection. 

Set ground rules for messaging apps and video conferencing to help employees feel more at ease. Before the pandemic, it was common to post meeting rules in conference rooms dictating behaviors. The same can be applied to virtual meetings and discussions. 

Encourage risk-taking and discourage public critiques 

As you set these guidelines, recognize that it’s a big step for employees to introduce new ideas or ask questions in public forums. Their fear of rejection and criticism in front of others can stifle ideas and eliminate any chance of delivering innovation within the company. It’s crucial, therefore, to proactively encourage employees to take risks and offer ideas. And to let them know their comments will be viewed constructively.  

In addition to establishing rules, be prepared to quickly jump in and take action when someone says something harmful or inappropriate. It’s also important to remind employees that their criticism of others also impacts their reputation and standing within the company.    

Remind employees and managers that emails and messages are forever

As we’ve seen through political spectacles and corporate lawsuits, any form of written communication is forever. Even as chat messages might disappear from previous chat sessions, they live on forever somewhere on a server. 

As well as being detrimental to employee psychological safety, instant messages and group chats can also land a company in court or in the headlines. For example, the direct luggage company, Away appeared in numerous articles when its CEO Steph Korey posted abusive messages to employees. The content reported in the press exposed an ongoing, toxic environment that contradicted its reputation as a fun, open and rewarding workplace. 

Work with all levels of management to improve communications 

The case with Away represents the importance of promoting psychological safety at all levels of your organization. Some senior executives might think they’re immune from company guidelines or mistakenly believe their comments will be received positively. Long-term, more tenured employees might allow their familiarity with the company to be careless in their communications.  Newer and younger employees might not understand the importance of positive communications. 

AI and NLP Technologies Can Lend a Hand

Over the years, artificial intelligence (AI) and natural language processing technologies (NLP) have helped organizations identify patterns and specific words in their documents. AI technologies have been making great strides lately to help analyze and predict behaviors. As a branch of AI, NLP makes the connection between computers and humans to understand natural languages.   

But now, NLP is expanding beyond keywords to a collection of words, sentences and structures to identify conversations that might diminish an employee’s psychological safety. Using idea graphs, NLP is moving beyond “what” someone says to “how” they say it, to quickly identify troublesome comments in a Slack conversation or company email. This ability to understand the language outside of the words can help prevent harmful communications before they occur. 

As you monitor and engage with company communications to create a culture of psychological safety, you can also develop an alternative to culture surveys. Communications, as they occur, reflect the true sentiment within a company, while surveys might not be answered completely or honestly. 

The value of building this culture far exceeds the cost of recruiting and training new employees. Reducing employee churn and maintaining a productive workforce will prove invaluable in the long run if you can pay attention and guide the conversations in the right direction.

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