Workplace stress, that is related to fear refers to repetitive demand on a person’s physical or mental energy beyond the threshold limit. Stress is like anxiety. It is a response to a specific environment like a situation, person or even an experience that one may fear. When an employee finds himself in a situation that repeatedly demands more than their capability, intrinsic motivation, resources they have or their psychological preferences, they experience stress.
Psychological Safety & Stress!
Work stress is different to a challenge. Challenge, which may be temporary and a lower form of stress, motivates the employee to enhance their capability, rewards learning and makes people put in more into a task. Friendly competition especially the one in a non-threatening, playful environment may be categorized as a challenge rather than stress. With the right amount of stress, also called challenge here, performance is optimal. When a person is in this zone, they are coping well with the stressors and have enough motivation to put in their best. So, a little bit of stress is good for us. It can make a writer perform necessary checks to ensure they are not making grammatical mistakes or a driver to check the breaks and oil in the engine before setting out on a long journey.
However, when an employee finds himself in a stressful environment often, and in large amounts, mental and physical health are negatively affected. Every individual has a different threshold for stress. This threshold can determine their success or failure in the job role. By knowing the personal preferences of their team members and their stress threshold, managers have an opportunity to personalize their management approach. In this way, managers can positively influence the level of stress faced by their team members. Also, this is how managers can drive Psychological Safety at workplace.
Managing stress involves three steps
- identifying the stressors
- eliminating them and
- helping the team member cope better with those stressors that cannot be removed.
Leaders could reward certain behaviors that reduce stress and promote Psychological safety:
Vulnerability Based Trust and not Impregnability
Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great mention that humility is the number trait of Level 5 leaders. Similarly, Patrick Lencioni, the Teamwork Guru, in his bestseller Five Dysfunctions of a Team defines vulnerability-based trust as the foundation of teamwork. Leaders who are ready to accept their mistake, failures and goof ups without hesitation enhance mutual trust. Traditionally, leaders have rested their case of being a leader by demonstrating their impregnability, their ability to be strong through tough situations and having a limitless capacity for taking up challenges. They are experts that others look up to for solutions as they tend to have all the answers.
For promoting Psychological Safety at workplace, the whole concept of a unipolar organization, where everyone looks up to the “The Boss” could be counterproductive. The fact is that every individual brings unique talents and skills just like the leader. Leaders carry their own emotional baggage, value dilemmas, an imperfect history and a tendency to make mistakes in certain areas. By creating a place where mistakes are accepted and employees can afford to be “weak”, we can enhance psychological safety. It is difficult for people to share their goof ups and be vulnerable until somebody else does. By sharing their goof ups first, leaders can establish a more vulnerable, trust filled environment in their teams.
Conflict of Ideas and not Personalities
Conflicts at workplace are common. When people work together, they are bound to disagree on certain tasks and issues and sometime with certain people. Broadly, there are two types of workplace conflicts – 1) When people don’t agree to certain decisions, ideas, tasks or approach and 2) When they frequently tend to disagree with certain people also called personality clash. While every conflict creates certain negative emotions, the first type of conflict could be good for business when handled properly.
By engaging in conflict around ideas, high trust teams can assess the value of ideas and mitigate the risk of what is called group think. By discussing and engaging in conflict around ideas and approaches, teams can foster Psychological safety and build greater commitment, ownership and make fail proof plans.
Personality clashes, which refers to a clash of intent or personal preferences involve greater emotional investment and expression. It is usually unproductive and could escalate into mutual loathing and dislike. Such a conflict could downplay business priorities and promote individual interests. A good question to ask to ascertain the type of conflict you are engaged in is: Do you get angry or frustrated by another person all the time or just when an issue is raised, or an idea suggested?
By promoting conflicts around ideas leaders can enhance Psychological Safety. Because personality clashes can stir up a host of negative emotions, team members learn to regulate their emotions when in a place that ensures Psychological Safety. They then focus on things that are within their control and not engage in conflicts around issues or people who they have no control on. They can think analytically and creatively in such an environment.
Collaboration and not just Competition
Competition is known to be good. Many people have claimed that innovation and creativity is an outcome of competition. While human beings have a natural inclination for competition, it doesn’t really bring out the best in them in every situation. A little bit of competition is good. However, when the stakes are high, competition could be counterproductive. While a little competition could provide the right stimuli and motivation for action, it can easily go out of hands and can result in people exploiting each other.
Collaboration is often a good alternative to competition. And it could seldom be counterproductive. When people find Psychological safety at workplace, they naturally tilt towards collaboration. On the other hand, leaders who overplay on creating competition within their team, especially for rewards and recognition, eventually compromise employee morale.
Collaboration can’t happen by itself. Leaders must create opportunities where leaders create situations where people need to reach across functional and reporting boundaries to accomplish their goals. Projects with members from different teams, cross-functional groups and short-term projects that involve building consensus across teams provide a viable way to foster collaboration.
Here are a few unhealthy outcomes that stems from over competition
- People could engage outsmarting each other instead of focussing on collective results. Winning in this case becomes about individuals and not about the team or the organization.
- People could hold information and not be forthcoming with their views and opinions.
- Unhealthy alliances may emerge based on personalities and personal preferences and they work towards undercutting each other.
And as the “us vs them” culture develops, people could engage in sabotaging each other’s work greatly harming the organization.
Failure Rate and not just Success Rate
Success comes from doing things right. No doubt about it. However, when managers permit their team members to do things incorrectly without consequences, they encourage creativity and foster Psychological safety. By reflecting on our mistakes and analysing them without any perceptual threat, we can learn. Moreover, learning from mistakes sticks for a longer time.
However, it is important to create an environment where people are ready to own up to their mistakes, reflect openly on the causes of those mistakes and its business consequences. Leaders in high performing teams wilfully understand experiments and problem-solving initiatives that increase the failure rate. They have a higher tolerance for mistakes and greater appetite for risk taking. Mistakes, failures and the ensuing learnings are the steppingstones for success.
Playful Environment and not just Structured Environment
Structured work, typical to large organization involves a well-defined hierarchy and a clear definition of outcomes. The tasks are well-documented, scheduled and have a clear measure of success. Also, the communication in such a culture drives clarity of expectation and accountability. Planning is important and focus is on implementing projects as per the plan.
In organizations that promote Psychological safety, work environment tends be playful which has an element of flexibility than may be missing in organizations that have rigid, structured approach to work. In such organizations, plans are improvised on the go and creative solutioning is rewarded. Playful environment is also characterized by free expression, exuberance, social interaction and friendly competition.
As a conclusion, Psychological Safety us about personalizing one’s approach to people management and creating a culture where everyone gets an opportunity to contribute to the organization in their own way.