The words ‘safe’ and ‘stable’ may not immediately sound the most engaging, but they can play a significant role in developing and maintaining an attractive workplace culture that supports highly engaged employees.
At our company, we spend a lot of time talking to clients, and to delegates at our Best Employers Eastern Region leadership conferences, about ways to evolve workplace culture and increase employee engagement. While the more creative, fun, and even slightly quirky ideas for creating motivating and inspiring environments may be the first to capture attention, the fundamental basics are just as important. It’s not hard to imagine how feeling unsafe and experiencing a constant sense of instability would be mentally taxing and distracting. If people can’t give their full attention to the basics of their job, it will be almost impossible to go on to inspire, motivate and engage them further. That’s why in his book ‘Leaders Eat Last’, renowned business author Simon Sinek talks about the importance of leaders creating a safe and secure working environment, and why psychologist William Kahn, thought to be one of the first experts to recognize the importance of employee engagement, believed people could only really become engaged if they felt ‘psychologically safe’ first.
Here are some suggestions on how organizations can strengthen a sense of safety and stability for their employees, providing the foundations they need to become fully engaged.
Clear communication of role and purpose
People feel safer when they know what is expected of them, as it removes the worry of whether they are delivering what is needed and the fear they may be criticized for not doing their job properly. Clear communication about an employee’s role, such as thorough job descriptions and smart, measurable objectives will help to provide this information, alongside the chance to regularly discuss their role and any potential support and training required through one-to-ones, appraisals, and reviews. This can be further strengthened by clear communication of the organization’s mission, purpose, and values, so that everyone can see what success looks like and recognize the role they can play in making it happen.
Open channels of communication and a safe voice
Open access to leadership, and channels that encourage people to communicate upwards, will help employees to feel it is safe to contribute their suggestions and ideas. Leaders can encourage employees to put themselves out there and to share their opinions by making it clear that all suggestions are valued and encouraged, and that people won’t be judged or ignored. Simple behaviors such as considering all viewpoints in brainstorming sessions, making it clear that there is no such thing as a wrong answer, and rewarding those who speak up by thanking them for their input, will all help to build a sense of safety. This will not only help to encourage employees to contribute innovative ideas but also come forward to ask for help or advice if they are struggling, have made an honest mistake, or if have any concerns.
Leading by example
Research has shown that an employee’s sense of job stability and safety is related to whether or not they can trust their leaders. It is the leadership team that will set the tone for creating a culture of trust and psychological safety in a company, but as Simon Sinek states in his TED Talk video about ‘Why good leaders make people feel safe’, trust is not an instruction. Leaders can’t just tell employees to trust them and expect them to do so. Trust needs to be earned through actions such as transparent, open, and regular communication, leaders being both accessible and approachable, and by showing an obvious consideration for the wellbeing of employees. Leaders can gain trust on a practical level by following through on the things they say they will do and generate emotional trust by treating everyone respectfully.
Safe to be authentic
If employees are worried that they will be criticized or judged for being their real selves, their efforts will be focused on trying to fit in rather than being fully engaged with the job. Mike Robbins, author of the book ‘Bring your whole self to work’ explained in a Forbes interview that if there is a lack of psychological safety for people to behave authentically, it makes it difficult for them to perform at their best because they are holding back some of who they really are. This was also emphasized in Google’s recent ‘Project Aristotle’ study which looked at what made a high-performing team and identified psychological safety as one of the key elements needed. It revealed that teams performed better if people were not putting on a ‘work face’ and that everyone felt they could act naturally in front of one another. Leaders can help to create a culture in which everyone feels safe to be themselves by being authentic themselves, showing their own vulnerabilities, admitting when they don’t have all the answers, and demonstrating empathy and acceptance.
Security and safety benefits
Finally, an organization’s benefits package also provides another opportunity to increase an employee’s sense of safety. It can not only make them feel valued and looked after, but also help to ease potential concerns which could be distracting their focus at work. For example, benefits such as health, life, and medical cover provide reassurance and financial security if an employee becomes too ill to work. Lifestyle benefits help to improve their well-being; be that mental health, physical health, financial or social wellbeing. Plus, in the event of ill-health, wellbeing benefits can help employees to get back to work quicker or help them to access valuable counseling support at difficult times.