December 10, 2021
Susan Lovegren

As 2022 arrives, I feel fortunate to be working with a variety of “Future of Work” technology companies. They are all committed to providing better outcomes for employees and employers alike. One such company is #NotMe Solutions (aka #NotMe). #NotMe empowers people to report racism, harassment, discrimination, safety and compliance issues, safely and quickly — whether they’ve experienced or witnessed them. In turn, #NotMe Solutions offers organizations access to insights needed to act and create an accountable, safe, and thriving culture. Unfortunately, many organizations do not have an efficient and trustworthy platform to report on “code of conduct issues” nor have they encouraged a “speak up” culture.

To move past this, “Future of Work” trends tell us that we need to create environments that are psychologically safe, and HR needs to recognize that the old ways of handling “employee relations” issues are no longer relevant, helpful or promote trust within organizations.

I was recently listening to Adam Grant’s Worklife podcast, entitled, Is it Safe to Speak up at Work? Grant’s position was that without a culture of psychological safety it is very difficult to get people to come forward with bad news, ask for help, or admit that they were wrong. Grant interviews Ed Pierson, a recently retired senior manager at the Boeing 737 factory near Seattle. Ed was convinced that airplane safety was in jeopardy due to tight deadlines, worker fatigue, and a culture that publicly humiliated employees who missed production deadlines. Eventually Ed went public about the problems he saw at Boeing. He spoke about a culture in which people could not speak up without fear of retaliation. Grant goes on to say, whether you work in an industry where mistakes have disastrous consequences, psychological safety is a vital ingredient for healthy, effective, creative work.

Amy Edmondson, professor at Harvard Business School defines psychological safety as a climate in which one feels one can be candid. It’s a place where interpersonal risks feel doable, like asking questions, sharing new ideas and even admitting mistakes. Within most contemporary leadership circles, psychological safety was not a mainstream term but today it is gaining momentum in many organizational cultures. So how do HR practitioners influence leadership and create an environment of psychological safety so a speak up culture may be realized?

First, it is important for HR to be able to articulate why psychological safety matters to business, not to mention people. In an April 8, 2019, Harvard Business Review article, Research: Why Managers Ignore Employees’ Ideas by Elad N. Sherf, Subra Tangirala, and Vijaya Venkataramani the authors describe this problem well: “When employees share novel ideas and bring up concerns or problems, organizations innovate and perform better. Employees are often the first to see issues on the frontlines, so their input can really help managerial decision making. The authors go on to say, “Unfortunately, while the many benefits of speak-up culture are clear, many managers remain hesitant to seek input from their people and are even less likely to really listen when that input is provided. And while disregarding employee input can cause frustration and disengagement of some of your best people (even causing them to leave), actively discouraging employees from speaking up can have even more severe detrimental impacts on the long-term effectiveness of the team and the strategic competitive advantage of the firm”. Given the number of workplace safety, compliance and harassment issues that come to light each week, it seems that organizations would push for more transparency. Logically, no one likes to be surprised or on the defensive.

Some organizations continue to mandate that everyone read, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, by Kerry Patterson, originally published in 2002, to promote Psychological Safety. The first edition of Crucial Conversations exploded onto the scene and promised to revolutionize the way millions of people communicate when stakes are high. In summary the book is intended to prepare individuals to be better communicators, especially when preparing for high-stakes situations, transforming anger, and hurt feelings into powerful dialogue, making it safe to talk about almost anything and being persuasive, not abrasive. This book continues to be on the bestseller list with the promise of promoting more effective and honest conversations. While the premise is positive, we don’t seem to be making the progress we all desire when it comes to work environments that actively promote psychological safety. According to a 2017 Gallup survey, 3 out of 10 employees strongly agreed that their opinions don’t count at work.

There are more training programs becoming available to educate employees and managers about psychological safety. The term should be part of a new vernacular in manager development programs, equally as important as goal setting, performance feedback, pay discussions, and day-to-day coaching. Some examples include, The Center for Creative Leadership’s program, Upskill Your Team to Build Greater Psychological Safety in the Workplace or revisit, David Rock’s SCARF model, detailed in Your Brain at Work.

Technology has the potential to augment the good work of leaders and HR professionals to ensure a psychologically safe work environment. I use the word “potential” because it depends on trusting the individuals managing the platform, typically HR and Legal. Both are beholden to the CEO and Executive leadership team, which may be a conflict. Case in point, look at McDonald’s former CEO, Steve Easterbrook. Shortly after arriving at McDonald’s, Easterbrook named David Fairhurst as global chief people officer to oversee McDonald’s corporate HR function. An August 25, 2020 article published in The Wall Street Journal reported that Fairhurst made it more difficult for employees to provide feedback on the behavior of their bosses. Employees also accused Fairhurst of playing favoritism regarding promotions and acting improperly with female employees at after-hours social events, as well as promoting a “party culture.” Employees were concerned about reporting misconduct of executives to HR for fear of retaliation. Fairhurst departed McDonald’s a day after Easterbrook was terminated. Technology cannot cure the “human condition” completely, but it can create more checks and balances and make us all better by gaining insights to organizational behavior. By being able to pinpoint where there are unfavorable patterns, issues may be addressed early and often.

One of the things I appreciate about #NotMe is the ability to include employees in the solution before issues grow into something more insidious. For example, when something is amiss, there is an opportunity to have a dialogue about what would make the situation better or resolve things going forward. Analytics are also available to gain insights on areas for further education, leadership hot-spots, resolution best practices, etc. Having an objective and open platform to better understand what is really impacting the culture of your company is such a step beyond the current model of an employee mustering up the courage to speak up to someone in HR.

Given HR and Legal’s traditional role to protect the company combined with a void in psychological safety creates risk for both employees and employers. Forbes published the results of two surveys that provided some insights into the trust problem. Human relations platform Cezanne HR recently surveyed over 1,000 workers at organizations with more than 250 employees in the UK. They found that: Almost half (47%) of employees don’t trust HR to help with conflict resolution and more than two in five (45%) of respondents don’t believe HR will act impartially, while 43% believe senior staff members are favored. Last year, U.S.-based Zenefits, an HR, payroll and benefits company, released a report called “Human Resources: Helpful or Horrible?” found 38% of employee respondents feel HR does not equally enforce company policies for all employees, with 18% of that group believing managers get special treatment.

It is a contradiction in many respects. On one hand, companies recognize that “listening” to customers and employees is critical to their success. Real-time data allows leaders to respond more effectively to unfavorable trends or issues as they arise. Much like an early-warning system on your car. On the other hand, employees are often reluctant, distrustful, even fearful to be forthcoming with issues that are personally sensitive. Companies worry about unearthing information that may become a legal matter. So, the conundrum continues, if I stick my head in the sand, no harm can come. I think we all know better than that.

Adapting to the many demands of what is required to draw out the best in human performance can feel illusive or even overwhelming. This is especially true if the groundwork for psychological safety has not been laid or integrated into the company culture. Embracing technology that is available to all in reporting issues, educating employees and managers, and rewarding behaviors that support the values, is a good start in building a culture of psychological safety. I challenge HR practitioners to reimagine a new relationship with technology to increase employee trust, gain insights, expedite resolution and add more value to business outcomes.

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Susan Lovegren, Former EVP & Chief People Officer at Medallia, Inc.

Susan Lovegren, former Chief People Officer for Juniper Networks, Medallia, and became a Board of advisor for #NotMe, a disruptive digital solution that empowers employees to report their concerns.

With more than 25 years in leadership, Susan has a proven track record for creating employee experiences that enable people to thrive.

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