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Elva Ainsworth

Talent Innovations

World-renowed 360 degree specialist, author and consultant

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How organisational paralysis is hindering psychological safety

Elva Ainsworth helps senior HR professionals look for the signs and symptoms of unhealthy paralysis and how to address them.

An organisation learns to avoid pain just like an individual. 

If there are claims of bullying, then some people can become afraid of asking others to do things. If a legal battle with an employee is tricky, then managers can stop managing performance. If humiliatingly bad mistakes are made, then employees stop experimenting. 

‘Playing it safe’ in corporate life can sometimes be a pretty good idea for an individual. It will rarely get you into trouble, you will not normally be fired for it, and your working experience can be rather enjoyable this way if you can handle the frustrations. 

However, it can be extremely bad for the business. In spite of this, many cultures, consciously or unconsciously, encourage and promote this as a successful approach; even though, if you are not careful, it can work against your real long-term goals. So, how can you tell if this is what is really happening in your culture and, if it is, what can you do about it? 

‘Playing it safe’ can be good for the individual but bad for the business.

Firstly, we need to be able to identify some of the obvious signs of an overly cautious culture. For example, here are some of the red flags:

  • Under performance is tolerated 
    HR policies can make it very hard to deal with poor performance, but the law supports a constructive and fair approach. It can be too easy to move people on to another department rather than risk properly solving the problem.  
  • Small decisions are made by senior people 
    When you see your most senior leaders spending their time on operational detail this can be a clear warning sign. The consequence can be one of organisational disempowerment, when managers lower down the organisation decide they no longer have any authority.
  • The culture is described as ‘nice’ 
    People may love to work at the organisation, and it may be an environment where everyone is polite, warm, friendly, and nice to each other. The downside of this can be a hesitation in saying something not-so-nice and, when there has been some sort of breakdown, this can become serious.  Holding people to account can often feel countercultural in this environment.
  • Reorganisations are rare and supremely painful 
    Things have been much the same for years; people have been in the same jobs forever and the same departments/functions have also been around for ages. A reorganisation in this environment will likely be very challenging, with high levels of resistance and discomfort with changes in reporting lines, accountabilities etc.  
  • Feedback is not flowing
    If you have not received feedback recently from your seniors or colleagues, then assume it is not flowing. Regular, timely observations about what is working and not working is highly constructive. An absence of feedback means employees are in the dark about their blind spots and are not necessarily growing.

Psychological safety 

Psychological safety is good for business. When employees feel comfortable asking for help and challenging the status quo, organisations are more likely to innovate quickly, unlock the benefits of diversity, and adapt well to change – all capabilities that have only grown in importance during the COVID-19 crisis. Yet, instilling a climate of psychological safety is a challenge for many business leaders.

How can you shift a culture from organisational paralysis to a creative place of psychological safety? 

From recent studies it seems that a positive team climate is the most important driver of psychological safety. Leaders who demonstrate supportive, consultative behaviours and then begin to challenge their teams are those who create this type of culture. So, how can you take actions in this direction?

Here are six tips to shifting what can often become a rather stale and stagnant situation:

  1. Encourage leaders to look at leadership styles and support with coaching and/or training. Aim for consultative and supportive rather than authoritative styles.
  2. Take visible action to communicate new intentions at the highest level. Take symbolic action, e.g. creating a new cross-functional workforce, setting up ‘listening lunches’, etc.
  3. Encourage managers to start to use the language of safety: “I don’t know”, “I’m sorry”, “I need help”, and “I made a mistake”. Find a few champions to role model this language.
  4. Focus on the value of asking good questions rather than on telling or informing: “What can I do to support you?”, “What are you up against?”, “How can I help you?”, and “What are your concerns?”.
  5. Listen for fear and insecurity and make space to listen and support through tricky times. Ensure there is access to help where it is needed.
  6. Fully, and constructively, address the truth. For instance, 360 feedback can facilitate a full feedback review across a layer of the organisation, but be sure that it is designed and implemented with support and growth as the primary objective.

There is much a manager can do to reassure and support their employees but, all too often, there is little time for this. The key point to drive home, however, is that employee fear is in the hands of the manager, and this fear is not good for business. 

So, in these challenging times, when can you afford not to do something to address this?

Author Profile Picture
Elva Ainsworth

World-renowed 360 degree specialist, author and consultant

Read more from Elva Ainsworth

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