Companies that are winning these days have, -despite what sensationalist reporting may have you believe-, immensely more engaged and happy employees that are productive and the key ingredient to that is that their teams have a fair amount of Psychological Safety. Psychological Safety -sadly- can't be either investigated or improved overnight. Creating value takes time. We didn't make our workforce unsafe overnight, we won't build them back again mindfully and with respect and admiration fast either. But how can we prepare for a long, arduous road when we're not even positive how important it is to be on this path?
First and foremost we have to move the topic from a "nice to have" to a firm and urgent "must have".
Digitally native companies such as the big tech in the Valley know their intrinsic value is not in the technology they create that is entirely replicable, but in the fact that they have built safe, happy, and invested teams and now have resilient, strong and healthy organisations.
They wouldn't dream to think any of this is a side-note as they know it's the secret sauce of their success.
It ought to be the clear number one imperative in any other business who wants to succeed - how leaders could be prioritising anything else in lieu of their people's emotional well being is utterly beyond me, it can't be because they don't understand the risk and the opportunity but because they don't know what to do about it and have outsourced any of the thinking of this to a function that is struggling at the intersection of compliance and admin.
Psychological Safety or Employee Happiness?
Much as Psychological Safety of teams transcends a number of ideas it is indubitably also contained in the ethereal, fluffy concepts of employee engagement or employee satisfaction, etc with the pivotal caveat being that PS can be diagnosed and affected hence it is an execution lever for bettering the bottom line, whereas the other ones have remained anchored in un-actionable rhetoric for the enterprise.
For a while, some 10 years ago, those terms were en-vogue enough that a few studies to show the direct correlation between satisfaction and productivity had time to emerge with results ranging from 20%-45% across the board.
X% more profitable, X% more valuable in the stock exchange, X% more likely to survive the next big shift, etc. Every CxO carried one or two numbers like this in their deck and vowed to achieve them, but as time went by and they found nothing in the way of solutions to aid them in making this a priority, those numbers dropped and were replaced by trendier and seemingly more actionable ones on diversity.
After all, when the only suggested solutions are around desk placement in open office spaces it's no wonder no one feels empowered to tackle the less evident and much bigger topics of whether or not our people feel heard, respected and pleased.
As a sad side-note, "happiness" is not the first people related concept to have been all but dropped by management decks. A few years back the term "talent" was everywhere and it is now all but gone from anyone's job title or improvement ambition which is very telling indeed and in line with how we think of people as "resources" not "capital".
From Ethereal Concepts To Concrete Solutions for Change
Patrick Lencioni of teams and network concepts fame speaks about this in his book The Truth About Employee Engagement and postulates that to improve it once needs to make people feel like they matter, like they make an impact and like they are advancing, making progress.
Those become a lot more actionable and thankfully, the last two he mentions, the group ones where purpose and relevancy are underpinned by transparency, rapid feedback, and visibility of progress are covered in the concepts of Agile and other new ways of work. What this means is that, for the -mainly- software development teams that are Agile, part of the work of building happiness is realised by the power of the process and ironically, partly, by how the process is only secondary to people. In these teams the remaining part to cover by Lencioni's theory is the part where we make people feel like they matter, what we at PeopleNotTech think is the very crux of the issue: making people feel heard.
It looks deceivingly simple and straightforward. "Feeling heard" means the team not only hears but listens. That implies they care. That caring can only happen when the group is cohesive and as close to the 51% more engagement that studies found close workplace relationships bring as possible.
It also, crucially, means that the organization "hears" by listening and taking to heart.
It's an umbrella term for recognition, good morale, understanding, healthy group dynamics, responsiveness and more. It is the cornerstone of any open dialogue and that in turn is the cornerstone of any ability to feel safe enough to be vulnerable and learn.
Improving Employee Happiness - As Easy As Doing the Dishes
Executives will soon have to face the music and completely reframe their ideas of priorities as it is becoming more and more common sense that to compete with people-savvy enterprises which deliver outstanding technology and service they have to become people-savvy themselves. As disruption rolls over the industry and the wheat is separated from the chaff by sheer consumer demand, many see their survival in question so this time it's urgent and this time they no longer have the excuse of lacking the tools to affect change.
They are no longer asked for a nebulous concept of improving satisfaction but have clear solutions and tools to affect levers that accomplish that. It's as if, after years of whining and diffuse generalised complaining by a spouse that the other one should "make them happy" leaving them bedazzled as to where to start they start to break it down into exact "do the dishes more often" tasks and even hand them the tabs and help them learn how to program the machine.
There are no more excuses, there's software out there to increase morale, trust and transparency, there's software to gauge people's emotional state and there are clear proven ways to better it by teaching our people and ourselves to listen. So it's time leaders put all the comfortable to-do's about revamping legacy core systems, moving applications to the cloud and delivering against regulation down, and replace them with the far less comfortable and monumentally bigger tasks of hearing their people. High time.
Psychological Safety may not be an easy-to-have but it's an essential, crucial, sine qua-non "to have" not a "nice" one for anyone who intends to stay in the game.