It feels good if people make others feel safe. If the relationships are founded on common values and trust, it is, indeed, viable. In work relationships, however, we have the ambition to choose teammates based on their skills, not on our feelings. Sometimes we need the skills of a person we would not join for a beer. And it is quite normal not to go for a beer with our collegues. It’s not that we would specifically dislike these people, it’ just that our values, lives, hobbies, and roads do not really cross anywhere. That is perfectly alright. We do not have to be friends with everyone.
A team at work is not primarily created for friendship. It is designed to achieve a goal, which cannot be achieved by a single individual. The goal sought to be achieved in companies is the creation of a unique value for the customers. In order to achieve the goal, which may not be achieved by an individual, it is, therefore, inevitable for people to enter into a contract with other people with various talents and skills. Profit should be the consequence of this approach. Should an indiviual cease to cooperate for any reason whatsoever, we should be able to replace the individual without disabling the operations of the company. The value of a company is not the sum of the value of individuals working at the company. The value is hugely influenced by the system, processes and by the ability to organize the delivery of the product on time. A system independent of the people is a term similar to “environment”.
An environment may arouse good or bad feelings. Work environment generates both types of feelings. Bosses sometimes think that a safe work environment means that emoloyees do not have to perform, that nobody is allowed to create pressure, that they must feel complete freedom and nobody should address any issue that might make them feel uncomfortable. This is a complete nonsense.
Even in families we do create pressure and it is perfectly ok. Stress is not merely a bad thing, there the good stress does exist, as well. If we want to chat all day long, we should take vacation and not do it at work. We should actually work at work. And we should be free to talk about feeling like not wanting to work. We should be free to talk about it with our boss. Even the boss should be free to tell us that some part of his job sucks. But still we should work at work. Feeling safe does not mean we should only feel fantastic and not work. Nobody feels fantastic all the time. I do not know anybody who would enjoy feeling fantastic all the time. Being a human being comprises of a much wider scale of feelings - from the most positive to the more negative. The ones who work are people. They should be managed by people as well.
Requesting performance at work is normal and is a common part of of the contract between the employer and employee. Often, however, the employees truly want to work and they even want to work better, more effectively, smarter, less with the same result, but the work environment does not help them - to the contrary - it completely disables them to achieve higher productivity. A rigid work environment is called rigid because it rejects any kind of change - regardless of whether it should be negative or positive. It is quite simple. We should work at work and the environment should enable us to work better.
An environment is bigger than the sum of people who create it. The environment has the power to provide the feeling of safety, bring innovations, responsibility and values even into the most stressing and hardest projects. Environment has the power to provide the feeling of safety also to managers, not just the managed. If the boss is out for some reason, the others will replace the boss’ tasks. The boss may feel safe in the sense that the others will not misuse the absence against him and the company will not break. Value will still be created and the customers will still appreciate it.
What makes one environment different from another one? The nature of a work environment is almost always defined by the leader and the history of leaders, unless the leader is just a doll which comes and goes and therefore, is not a leader at all (like it happens at ministries all the time). It is the leader’s responsiblity to create an environment which is good and which feels safe. It is the leader’s job to do this. To create a system - an environment - where others create values for the customers in a sustainable way. Otherwise, they will not be able to remain competitive in a longer term - leaders will loose their great ideas one day and they cannot do everything by themselves. Innovation must come from other people who understand the products and the topic, as well. That is impossible in an environment with constant threats and dangers. It is however very possible in an environment which feels safe.
How to Achieve an Optimum Work Environment?
People tend to seek sophisticated methods how to achieve and optimum work environment, which both feels safe and ensures performance, as if the safety part was an antonym to performance. Safety, however, is not contrary to performance - it is the parameter which directly determins performance. The higher the psychological safety, the higher the performance. How to achieve an optimum work envirnment is a question similar to the question, how to achieve an optimum family environment. By caring for each other more - simply because we care for each other, by helping each other, by the fact that the satisfaction and fulfillment of needs of the others in long term is our primary goal, just like the fulfillment of our own needs. Any family where the core value is not humanity, will not be an ideal family by definition - nobody would evaluate it this way - regardless of the criteria and views. If I do not genuinly care about my teammate, no kitchen talk will ever help anything in reality. Neither will table tennis, nor table football, nor will drinking beer with collegues every night. The one thing which does help, is an authentic interest in the others.
We have to frankly admit that the research addressing the transformation of organisations from authocratic to democratic management style speak very clearly that the probability of real change is quite miserable. I believe this paradigm is caused by the fact that the change creators are only walking on the surface and fail to address real human motivations and emotions. Changes then push people to simulate engagement motivated by doubts and fear. Such engagement kills even the ideas that may be good. We need to look deeper below behavioral patterns into motivational patterns and real intentions of real people.
People hate manipulation and appreciate authenticity very much. Whether or not we believe a person, has mostly nothing to do with precise analysis of logical arguments. The believing happens in other parts of the brain than the logical reasoning. Leaders have to have the courage to be authentic in order to gain real trust. They should be radically open, which means being both empathic and sincere. Others will therefore appreciate their human approach and authenticity.
The concept of a company in which the results and correct answers are the only goals and authenticity and human approach are not, where only perfect machines, not the mistaking humans work, disables innovation and creativity. Everybody in such environment fears not to be perfect and is therefore motivated by fear, not by the desire to achieve positive values. Everybody hates perfect people. Almost perfect companies do exist, however. They are always full of really imperfect people.
And How to Achieve Authenticity?
How do you change a person who does not care about others at all into a person authentically caring about others? I do not think anybody really believes for a moment that this could be done even hypothetically by an online course, reading a book, applying a clever HR method or a game. It is both harder and easier than that. It is not about learning a skill, but about understanding own human nature and the human nature of the others. It is about eliminating the fear of being authentic.
I am convinced that the method how to achieve an optimum work environment is to get to understand oneself and others as human beings - which means to use humanist psychology for leaders and employees. If I understand others and myself, I will not create an unsafe environment, because I will not want to, since I will care about others and will percieve it as a matter of fact that people perform how they feel. Human approach is also a universal double check for the correctness of any measures and initiatives aiming to improve almost anything - starting with processes, HR politics, new product and ending with work environment.
Safe Work Envirnment, Humanity and Agility
If I truly care about the others, I will stop for a one minute kitchen chat with a team member naturally and I will take a lot of other sophisticated measures described in many wise techniques, which, by the way, really work in this context. Business Agility is also usually an unrealistic bubble unless integrated seamlessly with safe work environment based on human approach. That is why employees often consider Agility a useless concept - without changing the nature of the work envirnment it actually is useless.
Author: Andrej Vršanský