Let us first ask what it is we mean by trust? From the frontline worker’s perspective, trust means that the employee will be treated well and cared for. As a result, employees feel comfortable opening up to their leaders. From the middle management perspective, trust means that the manager knows they will be adequately trained and prepared to handle whatever tasks they are assigned and not hung out to dry. From the executive management level, trust means the implicit understanding among senior-level colleagues that there exists an environment of open communication of ideas, strategies, and information that are the fuel of the organization. From the investor stakeholder perspective, trust means knowing that the organization’s executive leadership will act ethically and responsibly in their best interests toward their protection and growth.
While there might be slightly different interpretations of what the mention of ‘trust’ invokes in different individuals at different levels of the organization, if one was to strip away all the other unnecessary intricacies of organizational leadership, what is left? ‘Trust’ is the sole characteristic necessary to forge strong, collaborative team relationships; promote open, transparent, communicative environments; increase employee morale, engagement, and motivation; overcome resistance to change; promote personal and corporate development and growth; empower ethical decision making; and ultimately, improve the bottom line.
The Friedman doctrine, first proposed in 1970 by American economist Milton Friedman, suggested that a firm’s primary responsibility was to its shareholders – thus, to increase its profits . While Friedman’s philosophy has always been considered controversial, this theory has led to a market rise in stock-based compensation and the establishment of behaviors by many in the financial world defining everything from performance measurement to shareholder rights to corporate responsibility . For the past decade, the global adoption of arguments such as those proposed by Naomi Klein in her book The Shock Doctrine  has, for all intents and purposes, given the cognizant organizational leader cause to consider the world as a vastly different place than it was in the 1970s. Conducting business based on shareholder value thinking has become little more than a license for bad behavior.
Does it not stand to reason that if an organization is conducting business from the perspective of shareholder thinking, that the level of ‘trust’ up and down the organizational ladder might be called into question? If trust is questionable, then the organization, no matter how successful it may outwardly appear, is not performing at its potential best.
What is ‘Trust’ in Today’s Organization?
In today’s world, trust extends beyond the belief that organizational leaders will behave morally and ethically and even further than a belief that the company will take care of us, regardless of our role within the organization. Trust is the foundation of a psychologically safe environment – work or otherwise.
A team feels psychologically safe when there is a shared belief among team members that it is a safe environment for interpersonal risk-taking . More than merely interpersonal trust, it is an environment characterized by mutual respect in which people can openly and comfortably be themselves – their true selves.
Over the last decade, the demographic that makes up today’s workforce has shifted rather dramatically. While leaders of the past may have believed that specific individual considerations had no place in the office for the good of all and the organization, the emerging workforce of the past decade has vastly different beliefs. Today’s workforce is more diverse than ever before; they expect greater choice and control over their space and responsibilities. They are highly tech-driven; they are more discerning and expect to have a say in almost all aspects of corporate culture, and money is no longer a primary motivator.
With the emerging individual complexity of today’s workers, how does the leader develop an environment of psychological safety, thus imbuing trust throughout the organization?
How Do I Build Psychological Safety in the Workplace?
It is incumbent on the leader to take responsibility for the development of a safe organizational culture. The safe organizational culture must reflect:
- tolerance of mistakes,
- recognition of the individual’s contribution,
- a platform for individual voices in the organization,
- recognition and celebration of diversity and individualism,
- compassion and empathy through the development of dyadic relationships with employees,
- ensured inclusion, and
- make it OK to own up to mistakes.
It is incumbent on the leader to create an environment where an employee – at any level – feels that it is safe to share their opinion without fear of ridicule or chastisement.
Wow – that is a lot! So, how do you create a psychologically safe workplace? As a Leader, there are some specific things you can do from which other opportunities will naturally present themselves.
These three simple steps provide a starting point on which to build and all contribute to your team’s emotional intelligence. When individuals better understand their own biases, they become aware of their typical responses to challenges or changes. Having emotional intelligence allows for responses to situations in a manner that invites open discussion. Open discussion contributes to inclusion.
- Show concern for your team members as individuals and as people. As we work toward adopting the mores of the new remote world, organizational leaders are far too often oblivious to the impacts of a widely dispersed office. Team members might feel isolated, alone, neglected, and begin to question their value and worth to the company. Check in! Let your team know that you appreciate them for their whole selves, not just what they can do for the company. It is not uncommon in the new remote world that the Leader will have these feelings of disconnectedness also!
- Be precise with expectations – individual and team – and transparent and forthcoming with information. As a Leader, you are only as good as your word. Be accurate, realistic, and thoughtful when setting expectations, and mindful that ‘commitments’ in the new work environment have taken on a whole new meaning.
- Promote self-awareness among team members. Self-awareness and self-perception are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. Self-perception comes from input based on external information rather than from direct internal sources. Self-awareness contributes to self-perception, but it is the level of self-awareness one has that contributes to exactly how one perceives themselves. There are many ways to develop self-awareness among your team, including online psych tests and assessments, 360-degree feedback exercises, and assessment centers.
So, I am doing all these things, how do I know if I have developed a work environment of psychological safety? Am I cultivating a fearless organization?
If it is important and worth doing, it can be measured. When discussing team and leadership growth, it is essential to stop and evaluate whether the standards you are implementing are having an impact. Whether yes or no, good, or bad, it is important to know.
There are two quick methods the curious leader may utilize to measure psychological safety. They are the Predictive Index and The Fearless Organization Scan. (Links included.) Both are short assessments of your team’s attitude toward risk and failure, team conversation, willingness to help each other, and an inclusivity and diversity index.
Third-party independent analysis of your team’s character also provides an opportunity to receive unbiased results. The Leader’s openness to honest feedback is a large part of the psychologically safe environment.
With all this discussion about empathy, care, and understanding, I would be remiss if I closed out this missive without touching briefly on Attachment Theory and its impact in the workplace. If you are “old school,” then you are probably thinking – “you do not come to work to be babied!” This is a topic that I devote a full chapter in the book to and can only hope to touch the very surface of here.
Attachment Theory does deserve its own chapter devoted to the academic review. However, I did find quite a good website at The Attachment Project if you would like to read a bit more of a top-level clinical summary of the topic .
There are essentially only two types of employee attachment in the workplace: secure and insecure attachment. The Leader should be aware that if an employee seems to be distancing themselves, despite your best efforts toward inclusion, it is likely that they are anxious, preoccupied, and have unrealistic expectations of themselves and their supervisors, thus relying heavily on the team to complete the assigned task. This description represents an anxious/preoccupied and insecure worker with high attachment anxiety. Ironically, because of their need to be accepted by the group, the anxious employee is often the most highly reflective, seeking ways to improve themselves and their performance, thus becoming better at their jobs.
Employees with secure or avoidant attachment styles tend to be relaxed with interpersonal work relationships at any level and are comfortable forming strong bonds with all. They are least likely to face challenges completing work tasks, and do not fear rejection by coworkers, exhibiting fewer symptoms of physical or mental illness . They might just also be the most confident in their job knowledge and more resistant to training.
So, is it the secure or the insecure worker who is most likely to engage in an office or workplace romance? Perhaps I will write an entire book dedicated solely to office romances and attachment theory. More on that later…if you are interested!
In this present time, more than any time before, whether a remote worker or office-based, the individual employee is seeking a supervisor who can provide support and care. If you can discern the attachment styles of colleagues around you, it is a little more straightforward identifying specific needs, but if you cannot, do not worry! You do not need to. Just follow the suggestions, and above everything else, make sure you are maintaining open lines of communication, even if you find the subject matter trivial.
Creating an environment of psychological safety that reflects tolerance, individualism, diversity, empathy, compassion, and recognizes individuals for their contributions will result in a close-knit team, willing to take risks, knowing that they have each other’s backs. A fearless team is unstoppable. A fearless team can climb any mountain and overcome any obstacle toward organizational success… and really, it is not that hard to do. Thus, leadership will always be an antecedent of trust.
16. Friedman, M., A Friedman doctrine‐- The Social Responsibility Of Business Is to Increase Its Profits, in The New York Times. 1970, New York Times: Global.
17. Denning, S., Making Sense Of Shareholder Value: ‘The World’s Dumbest Idea’, in Forbes. 2017, Forbes: online.
18. Klein, N., The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. 2007, New York, NY: Picador.
19. Edmondson, A., Psychological Safety and Learning Behaviour in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 1999 44(2): p. 350-383.
20. The Attachment Project. Attachment in the Workplace: How Does Your Attachment Style Affect You at Work? [electronic] 2020 July 24 [cited 2020 November 23]; Available from: https://www.attachmentproject.com/.