I am your employee. If you don’t recognize my value–my knowledge, skills and abilities–if you treat me like a cog on a wheel, both my physical and emotional well-being is at risk. If you are inconsistent in your decisions, if you don’t respect my role and don’t give me feedback–my emotional and physical well being is at risk. If I am at risk then the organization is equally at risk.
If my emotional state is negatively disrupted I won’t perform my duties as well as I want. Workplace conflict will be closer to the surface. I will internalize my acidic emotions until soon my physical well-being is also at risk. Soon I won’t be showing up as often. I will want to quit. If I do, you will spend hard cash replacing me. And when I do show up, my soul feels sucked out of me.
Hardly “fuzzy and fun” the concept of an “emotionally safe workplace” is serious stuff and vital to retaining employees, avoiding a costly cycle of re-training, ensuring a well-managed and effective workplace, and avoiding a succession of workplace harassment complaints.
What exactly is an emotionally safe workplace? There is lots of agreement among those of us who study and work with organizations. For example, the consulting firm Shepell says there are “10 hallmarks of psychologically safe workplaces” ranging from “psychological support and clear leadership and expectations” to “civility and respect, recognition and rewards” to “involvement and influence.”
I recently completed a research study with just over 2,000 employees doing a wide range of activities in dozens of work units in the organization. Overall, 61% agreed there was a combined good/very good job being done on creating an emotionally safe workplace using the above definitions (and a few more). Sixty-one percent where I teach an MBA course in organizational behavior is just a “C” grade. Nothing to cheer about and plenty to worry over. For example, almost a quarter of the employees (21%) agreed that a poor/very poor job is being done to create an emotionally safe workplace.
That’s 454 employees who feel emotionally unsafe, who don’t suffer in silence, who share their feelings with other employees, their friends, their families and in so doing create a growing contagion of workplace mistrust and growing toxicity.
Then I dug deeper into my data to see what effect a workplace that is NOT emotionally safe looks like. The following is not a pretty picture:
- 78% of employees who gave a very poor rating to feeling emotionally safe ALSO gave a poor/very poor rating to feeling valued for their knowledge, skills and abilities.
- 69% of those employees feeling very emotionally unsafe at work also gave a poor/very poor rating to having constructive feedback.
- 82% of those feeling very emotionally unsafe also rated as poor/very poor the consistency in workplace decision-making.
And it goes on. The results of my study are rich in how an emotionally unsafe workplace lowered ratings for employee communication, trust in supervision, dealing with workplace conflict, being respected and treated fairly, and the level of workplace morale.
Get this: 92%…yes 92%…of those who rated their workplace as emotionally unsafe also agreed their morale was low/very low! Compare that to the 83% high/very high morale rating of those employees who felt they have an emotionally safe workplace.
So…anybody still think that the emotional safety and health of a workplace is just some fuzzy/wuzzy notion with no connection to the financial, productivity, and performance health of an organization?