Creating a Safer Workplace

Workplace-related suicides have increased in recent years, and organizations and businesses need to ensure they are doing right by their staff by sustaining healthy work conditions and providing appropriate resources for colleagues facing difficult times. The RANE network just published an advisory for its clients about mental health in the workplace and interviewed me (Carmen) for the piece. Rebels at Work, of course, encounter stress in the workplace; the chapter in the book Rebels at Work on rebel self-care is among the most popular. Here are some excerpts from the article and at the end a link that will download the PDF file of the complete text.

My comments emphasized that the default way organizations function creates tensions in the workplace. One example is the stigma against rocking the boat. Even when organizations do not specifically state it, employees often perceive that “companies do not like it if they challenge the organization in any way, including by offering a new idea or by stating that they have too much work.” A related dynamic is the value that so many organizations place on “smoothness.” Managers that let employees know they value stability and smoothness are also making it harder for individuals to tell you they perceive a problem or need some time off to deal with personal issues.

Organizations also promote stress by creating a work plan and objectives that require 100% of workforce time to achieve. There is no flex in the schedule to deal with personal emergencies, unexpected work load, or hiccups in the supply chain. Businesses that consistently run at the red line are guaranteed to burn up their employees.

I suggested that companies instead design their annual goals in such a way that the organization retains some excess capacity that can be used to deal with contingencies or to allow staff to pursue new projects. Companies interested in creating a psychologically-safe work environment should conduct cultural audits to reveal all the subtle ways they impose unnecessary stress on employees—from how they talk about performance appraisals to the way they run meetings and the expectation to answer emails during non-work hours. The introduction of artificial intelligence to knowledge work will be a new stress point for staff, some of whom may find that what they are good at is now done better by a machine.

There’s much more good content in the article including some specific information about preventing suicide in the workplace from Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas. Download the complete text here.

Build these three change muscles

Superhero character strengths slidejpeg

Five years ago when people asked me how change happens in big organizations I couldn’t wait to share ideas on positioning, navigating organizational politics and conflict.

Now my advice is different.

Based on personal experiences and learning from successful Rebels at Work, Change Agents, social scientists and psychologists, I see the importance of appreciation, character strengths and safety. These have to come before the tactical strategies and skills.

When we practice these three things we build up our ability to adapt to change and increase the self-esteem needed to initiate change. Plus they’re contagious, infecting work mates in the best possible ways.

When I was first introduced to these practices I was skeptical, believing them “soft.” But almost a year into incorporating them into my life and work I’m singing that 1960s Monkees song, “I’m a Believer.” As are many of my clients who are using them to change how they work.

Not changing work like using Yammer, but changing work in how we work with people, appreciating strengths and making it safe to try new things, question the status quo, and wonder out loud about possibilities without being criticized for not thinking things through. (I was criticized about the latter during many a performance review early in my career.)

Appreciation: the greatest motivator

 A sense of appreciation is single most sustainable motivator at work, according to Dr. Adam Grant, author of Give and Take and the Originals.

BUT we are less likely to express gratitude at work than any other place in their lives, according to research by the John Templeton Foundation

That’s right. After thanking the Starbucks barista for such an amazing latte, we walk into work grumpy and never think to thank a co-worker for some small thing that they’ve done especially well.

But here’s the deal: when we feel appreciated we become more trusting of others, our self-confidence increases and we’re more likely to help others. Plus we're more open to new ideas.

So stop reading right here.

Think of someone at work who you especially value. What are three things they do that make a difference to your group? Write them down quick. OK, now share those things with that person. Wait until you see how much that person lights up. You’ll both feel good.

(Another research finding: 88% feel better after giving kudos to co-workers.)

Character science: what motivates YOU? Your team?

We all have 24 universal character strengths in various degrees, according to extensive research by psychology professors Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman. These are intrinsic strengths that give us energy. When we’re in “the flow” we’re probably using our top strengths.

It’s helpful to know what your top strengths are and value and use them because they build your self-esteem, creativity and confidence, all necessary to adapt to change at work. (You can take a free assessment at the VIA Character Institute.)

As helpful is to understand the character strengths of your co-workers. When we understand what different people bring to the organization and how they work they way do within a context of character science, we’re able to appreciate them in new ways. (There’s the connection back to appreciation.)

My top character strengths are honesty and bravery. So rather than seeing my frankness as a “fault” – or as a royal pain in the ass– colleagues can see how it brings value to our work together.

Guiding teams through this process is some of the most exciting work I’ve done in my career. It opens people up to people  -- and themselves -- in new ways, creating a more positive, open-minded, can-do environment.   And who doesn’t want more of that at work?

And the research to back up the benefits? According the VIA Institute on Character:

71% of employees who believe their managers can name their strengths feel engaged and energized by their work.

For organizations that are focused on strengths, 77% of their employees report they are flourishing, engaged and able to make things happen at work.

(Note: this is what employee engagement is really about. Not surveys or p.r. campaigns, but being recognized for who we ware and appreciated for how we contribute based on our unique -- aka genuine -- strengths.)

Psychological safety: the secret to high-performing teams

If the environment doesn’t feel safe at work, you’re kind of, well, screwed because no one wants to make a wrong move, suggest an idea for which they’ll be laughed at, or call out a problem. If you start practicing appreciation and focus on strengths it will become safer, but creating a safe organizational environment requires much, much more.

Psychological safety is as important as physical safety at work, but it is largely overlooked and few managers are rewarded for creating this safety.

Check out the excellent New York Times Magazine article, “What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team” by the journalist Charles Duhigg. The most important characteristic of high-performing teams? Safety.

You get what you give

One of my favorite songs is “You Get What You Give” by the New Radicals. It’s an upbeat song with a dark undercurrent about the challenges of our fast changing, crazy world.

This whole damn world can fall apart You'll be OK, follow your heart You're in harm's way, I'm right behind.

Life and work is life -- evolving, spinning, changing. We can’t separate the two. We can’t ever, despite the politicians’ promises, go back to what was.

What we can do is strengthen our resiliency and ability to adapt. Helping one another follow our hearts, using the strengths that make us each uniquely us, and appreciating what we are accomplishing.

Imagine if more of us felt that if we were in harm’s way  someone would be right behind us?

You get what you give.