People are dying to work here

Steven Phillips
Steven Phillips

We’ve always been in the business not only of trying to help organisations see examples of the Emperor’s New Clothes, but also suggesting what the Emperor could be wearing instead of nothing. The current description of work place stress as an epidemic (Work-related stress jumps by a quarter to reach ‘epidemic’ levels) pinpoints the need to stare something, every bit as challenging as a naked emperor, in the face.

Whilst workplace stress has many contributing factors that are mentioned in the article, such as the ‘always on’ society and presenteeism, there is a glaring omission in descriptions of the problem: a core issue is that many organisations create environments that are simply not psychologically safe. There are many definitions of psychological safety but here we are talking about the simple idea that ‘I am psychologically safe when I am able to go about my work without undue fear or anxiety’. And it is not a huge leap to see how day-to-day workplace fear and anxiety is a major contributor to a clinical level of workplace stress.

The fear and anxiety we see and hear about in large corporate life is not all that mysterious in its causes. Here are a few of the more common issues:

  • Unclear expectations
  • Unclear decision rights
  • Institutionalised politics
  • Internal competition and division
  • Unchallenged and unresolved poor managerial behaviour
  • Delegation of risk *

(* This is the common practice of senior managers shifting the accountability for risk down the organisation, typically accompanied by NOT delegating the responsibility and autonomy necessary to enable individuals and teams to mitigate the risks that have been dumped upon them. Accountability is a fine thing, but not when it is experienced as petty tyranny.)

At the same time as creating, albeit unintentionally, these psychologically unsafe environments, there are greater and greater calls for people to ‘be more innovative’, ‘be more autonomous’, ‘be more collaborative’, ‘be more agile’ etc etc. This is experienced by the already overwhelmed as being on a scale that ranges from ‘adding insult to injury’ to ‘pouring petrol on a fire’.  Truly agile organisations did not become agile by running initiatives on becoming agile. Truly agile organisations are fundamentally psychologically safe places in which it is inherently permissible to take risks, to make great mistakes, to try stuff, to learn and therefore to succeed.

What we do know, from helping organisations to successfully make their environments psychologically safer, is that none of the issues listed above are intractable problems. They are deceptively simple to fix, but ONLY IF there is sufficient senior executive will to address them with sustained concern. There are many tools, techniques and approaches that are effective in addressing these causes and so the bigger question is, given the epidemic, why is there such reluctance to see the necessity? Perhaps the answer is in the discomfort involved in taking a good long hard look at oneself in the mirror. The leadership teams that decide they are accountable for creating the workplace psychological safety of their people are the ones who most frequently get in touch to address it.