Why Conscious Leadership & Psychological Safety Matter in Hybrid Workplaces

Psychological health and safety in the workplace is a shared responsibility, and employers have a key role to play in ensuring that workers are able to thrive and perform at their best. Workplace psychosocial factors grounded in safety, trust, respect, control, autonomy, and purpose, are all essential for promoting psychological health and safety. These factors can be understood as basic human needs that all individuals require to thrive.

According to Amy Edmondson, a lead researcher in the field, “psychological safety is the belief that the work environment is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. The concept refers to the experience of feeling able to speak up with relevant ideas, questions, and concerns. Psychological safety is present when colleagues trust and respect each other and feel able – even obligated – to be candid.” This definition highlights the importance of creating a safe and supportive work environment that encourages open communication and trust among all workplace stakeholders. Apart from ensuring a harassment and violence-free work environment, employers are responsible for first prioritizing psychological safety. This requires engaging with joint workplace health and safety committees and other stakeholders to address psychosocial concerns.

Workplace leaders must remain intentionally curious

An optimal health and safety system recognizes that fear and anxiety are the enemies of understanding the root causes of any workplace hazard and that poor psychological safety undermines good decision-making. The aim should always be to promote a “no blame” safety culture where workers’ concerns can be aired in a psychologically safe environment. The key question hybrid workplaces should be asking as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic is how do we promote more psychological safety in hybrid work environments? When considering how to begin it’s vitally important for workplace leaders to remain intentionally curious while trying to understand others’ points of view. Leading a diverse workforce requires balancing the needs and concerns of others based in part on unique, often immutable, characteristics such as race, gender, ethnicity, culture, language, and physical and cognitive abilities. Conscious leaders don’t look for quick shortcuts or “one-size-fits-all” approaches.

Imagine you are the leader of a non-profit agency providing support services to low-income families in the community. Your organization has been operating for several years pre-pandemic, and you have a dedicated team of staff and volunteers who work together to provide a range of services, including food assistance, housing support, and education programs. Some staff work front-line, others can work remotely so a hybrid work model was established, but only limited thought was put into the policy.

Recently, leaders expressed difficulty retaining staff, noticing with alarm that many of the “good ones” were leaving. During exit interviews, when asked why they were quitting, many staff reported feeling overwhelmed, stressed by the job demands, unsupported and/or undervalued by their employer. They said they felt disconnected from colleagues and from the families they serve and were struggling to stay motivated and engaged in their everyday work.

In this scenario, a lack of psychological safety represents a key barrier to understanding the root causes of burnout contributing to poor retention. By fostering a culture of psychological safety, where staff and volunteers feel comfortable speaking up, the example agency could have made more of an effort to identify and respond to expressed concerns and prevent serious harm. Leaders require enough lead time to address systemic concerns e.g., workload management, unclear job expectations, lack of promotional opportunities. In this case, it makes good business sense to remain “appropriately curious” about workers’ well-being.

Where can you start promoting more psychological safety in your hybrid workplace?

It starts with practicing more conscious leadership, especially from the very top, but also everywhere in between. Conscious leaders aim to create cultures of “we” instead of “me”. It begins with practicing “noticing skills” which, when practiced broadly across a workplace, enhance psychological support, and grow compassion in response to problematic signs and symptoms observed in others. The irony, especially for those labouring in the helping professions, is that those same noticing skills used to support clients can be forgotten or minimized within service delivery teams (especially harried, under-resourced teams). Workplace cultures that minimize perspective-taking and noticing put too much emphasis on individual well-being, demonstrating in so many words: “It’s your burnout so it’s your problem. Here are some tips and resources you can access using your employee benefits. Good luck.”. This lack of genuine curiosity means that root workplace-level causes stemming from unmet human needs are often overlooked. Conscious leaders recognize that they don’t have all the answers. They embrace humility, gladly value others’ perspectives, and frequently inquire about others’ well-being with genuine curiosity. Well-intentioned leaders who remain disinterested and disinvested in others’ mental and emotional needs leave their people to suffer quietly in the corner.

Some tips for promoting more conscious leadership and psychological safety in your hybrid workplace:

  • Recognize that you can’t do this alone and that there’s no single best solution. Begin by re-framing the work and regularly communicating the mission, values, and purpose of your organization. Clarify your expectations around “failure” framing it as an opportunity to learn and grow. Emphasize the need for all voices to be heard.
  • Revisit your organization’s strategic priorities regarding the advancement of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace with intent to create a psychologically safe space to share needs, wants, and concerns.
  • Build connection. As you navigate the needs of front-line and remote workers, remember to tailor your messaging in ways that validate workers’ lived experiences. Practice active listening. All leaders are obligated to boost workers’ motivation by helping them understand how their efforts fit into the bigger picture.
  • Minimize resentment & anxiety by bringing a diversity of staff together in routine and creative ways (e.g. prioritize in-person gatherings when and where appropriate). Explore IT tools that aid with real-time collaboration.
  • Practice gratitude frequently as a means of developing trust and presence. Cultivating trust and a sense of purpose and meaning are essential ingredients to every psychologically safe workplace. Conscious leaders who notice say “thank you” more often.
  • Recognize when and where things are going “well”. An interesting concept worth exploring is “positive deviance”. That is, come with a strength-based mindset. Assess for successes and effective team/personal strategies amongst the rank-and-file workforce. Where are your “positive deviants”? Do they feel psychologically safe enough to step forward and share their brilliant ideas?
  • Encourage more self-reflections – especially amongst managers and supervisors. Deliberately offer opportunities for supervisors to practice emotional intelligence and perspective-taking skills. Be deliberate (and patient) in growing these skill sets. Be clear about expectations and observe whether these skills are being used.

We live in tumultuous times, but these suggestions for enhancing psychological health and safety in hybrid workplaces are not new and were relevant to our pre-pandemic livelihoods. A key distinguishing factor in this new hybrid age is a tendency toward more severe “siloing” and forgetting the needs, wants and concerns of others. The psychological well-being of everyone in a hybrid workplace is dramatically enhanced with the addition of conscious leadership practices. As a shared responsibility, it falls on everyone to step up, but ultimately employers must lead the way and take ownership over whether their hybrid work model will succeed.

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