A few weeks ago, we facilitated a meeting with a group of senior executives. Eight in total including the CEO, this group represented each department of their 1,200-employee organization. As the day began, seven members of the team took their seats around the table. In accordance with the province’s health guidelines, they weren’t wearing masks.
The eighth team member took a different approach. Wearing a mask for the whole session, he instead sat in the back corner of the room away from his colleagues. The day before the session, he called me to express his concerns about meeting in person. Both he and his wife have underlying health challenges. With some reluctance, he agreed to show up in person with the caveat that he would keep a safe distance while wearing a mask. We got through the day as we normally would, but there was an undercurrent of discomfort.
It’s easy to empathize with both parties here. No one can be faulted for following the health authority’s guideline just as no one can be faulted for taking the necessary precautions to protect themselves and their family.
Still, this story is reflective of the underlying fear that still grips our society.
Think back to how you felt on March 15, 2020. Reflect on your first trip to the grocery store. The empty shelves, the quiet chaos, the ambient stress. Think about how that level of fear dictated your behavior and decisions for the coming months. Has that fear abated? Has it gone away entirely?
With the world “re-opening”, and health restrictions loosening, senior leaders are finding themselves caught in a quandary: how do you dial back fear in the workplace?
Whether it’s accommodating remote work requests, managing employee stress levels, or creating a culture of safety and performance, leaders are struggling to address the residual fear that still grips their teams.
To help you down the path, we have put together a comprehensive guide that will enable you to engage your teams and get your organization back on track with a culture that embraces health, safety, and performance.
- Create Guiding Principles Linked to Values
As a senior leader, how you behave will impact the culture of an organization. The behaviors that are encouraged, the actions that are tolerated, and the personal interactions across the company will all serve to inform an organization’s culture.
Best practices tell us that when these behaviors are rooted in a set of Guiding Principles, they will more effectively become embraced across the organization. When these Principles are linked to clearly defined organizational Values, the effects are compounded.
You may be wondering how this process takes shape.
In our experience, it’s as simple as a clear list of Values accompanied by Guiding Principles rooted in “we” statements that define how you will behave.
- Draft a Set of Policies, Keep Them Confidential
Having just gone through an exercise where you defined your Guiding Principles, take some time to draft a few health and safety-related policies. These policies could include:
- Remote Work
- Sick / Personal Days
- Social Distancing / Mask Requirements
When drafting these policies, be guided by the question: What feels right?
Remember, these aren’t being rolled out. This list is your starting point. Throughout the balance of the process, you will test and learn.
- Identify Your Factions
It will come as no surprise that we all think and act a bit differently from one another. As social beings, what that means is we end up gravitating towards those who think and act similarly to us. Over time, factions (groups, tribes, camps) emerge. We tend to think of businesses as being immune to this social phenomenon.
“Disney has over 200,000 employees? How did they find that many like-minded people?” Spoiler alert, they didn’t.
Whether you’re a 200,000- or 200-person company, you will inevitably have factions. Each individual, and by extension each faction, will have a different set of personal beliefs and values.
Take some time to take the temperature of your organization. How are certain people feeling? Are there groups of people with the same beliefs? Commit to having a series of one-on-one and small group discussions to better understand your staff’s personal values and belief systems.
Through this process, you will get a deeper understanding of how your staff are feeling, what their beliefs are, and what matters to them. Not only that, engaging them at this step will make any subsequent policies or changes that much easier to adopt. They will feel heard and valued. This will enhance their level of support of and receptivity to future policy changes.
- Demonstrate Empathetic Leadership
More than likely, there will be at least one faction that is resistant to returning to the office or engaging in in-person meetings. Also more than likely, this resistance, rooted in a personal belief system, will clash with an action or policy you’re wanting to enact.
The science of neurology tells us that when someone’s belief system is challenged, their emotional state will heighten. When we are in an emotionally charged state, we are highly resistant to change or coaching.
In the words of a mentor: you can’t wrestle someone who is having a crisis of beliefs and expect to win.
In other words, this battle will not be won with logic and reasoning. You must take the time to de-escalate the emotion and understand the individual’s unique belief system. Only then will you find common ground.
Seek to understand. Be inquisitive without judgement or an agenda. Listen to learn.
- Refine and Rollout Policies That Allow Everyone to Feel Safe
The bigger your company, the harder it is to create blanket policies that effectively accommodate everyone. As a leader of a diverse company, it is your responsibility to ensure that all of your employees not only feel heard but safe.
Reflect back on the draft policies you created at the outset. Evaluate them through the lens of the conversations you had with your teams across the organization.
Part of your role as a leader is to create a culture of psychological safety. One where everyone in the company feels safe to show up, speak up, and be their authentic selves. Creating policies that allow everyone to feel this way will be a challenge, but through the conversations you’ve had to this point, adoption will be easier than you think.
As you take on the above 5-step process, we recommend keeping the following things in mind. These constructs are designed to better inform your approach to creating a safe workplace for all staff.
What we are talking about is evolution not revolution. Your teams will be keenly aware of your company’s culture pre-pandemic. If they view this as your chance to leverage the pandemic to make sweeping changes, the process will be met with defensiveness. Consider your company’s culture pre-pandemic and work to incorporate these cultural constructs into your Guiding Principles and conversations with the team.
When dealing with change, what people crave more than anything is clarity. When going through this process, be empathetic and authentic yet highly decisive. If your decisions or behavior create ambiguity, the divides between the factions will grow.
Consider how we accept changes in our life. More often than not, we require an adjustment period. You may take this into account when you design your policies.
For example, if the end goal is to have everyone back in the office full-time, perhaps you create a gradual return-to-work schedule. Over time, allowable WFH days may get reduced.
Window of Tolerance
Above we talked about emotionality as it relates to change and coaching. This is well-visualized by the Window of Tolerance paradigm. The Window of Tolerance teaches us that in order to open ourselves up to change, we must be an emotionally-balanced state. Hyper-Arousal (anxiety, fear, anger) is associated with the Fight response of the amygdala. Hypo-Arousal (disassociation, shut down, autopilot) is associated with the Freeze response of the amygdala. In either case, a series of empathetic conversations can help bring someone back into the healthy middle area where enjoyment, change, and adaptation become possible.
A company is only as strong as its people. When given the opportunity to feel safe, valued, and respected, people will inevitably show up as their best selves. Creating the changes you wish to seek will take time, but when done the right way they will positively impact the lives of your team.
Author: Jordan Orr
Contributing Expert: Dr. Daniel Stone, Ph.D